This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
Marie “Selika” Williams (ca. 1849-1937) was the first African American artist to perform at the White House, yet remarkably little is known about her.
Marie Smith was born in Natchez, Mississippi, presumably into slavery, and later lived in Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Chicago where she studied Italian opera with the support of wealthy patrons. Her nickname The Queen of Staccato came from her association with E. W. Mulder’s “Polka Staccato”. The name “Selika” is a likely reference to Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. In the 1870s she married singer Sampson Williams, who billed himself as “Signor Velosko (the Hawaiian tenor)”.
In 1878 Selika sang for President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House. This historic honor led to other high profile engagements. She toured the U.S. constantly, and Europe twice. In 1883, she gave a command performance for Queen Victoria at the Court of St. James. In 1893 she performed at the World’s Columbian Exposition i.e. the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1896 she sang at Carnegie Hall on a bill with fellow African American singers Flora Batson and Sissieretta Jones. Other prestigious venues where she performed included Steinway Hall and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Her last couple of decades were spent teaching.