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Highway marker to honor Danville's Camilla Williams, a trailblazing Black opera star

Highway marker to honor Danville's Camilla Williams, a trailblazing Black opera star

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Camilla Williams

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Danville native Camilla Williams, the first African American woman to perform in a major American opera house, will have a historical highway marker erected for her in Danville.

Williams, who also became the first Black artist to receive a contract from New York City Opera, was born in Danville in 1919 and died in Bloomington, Indiana, in January 2012.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved a highway marker for Williams earlier this month. The marker is a result of Gov. Ralph Northam’s Black History Month K-12 Historical Marker Contest.

“Williams ... was a trailblazing opera star who performed internationally and also was a great supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.,” Jennifer Loux, highway marker program manager with the department, said via email Friday.

However, the submission for a Williams highway marker did not come from a student in the Danville Public Schools system, but from a student at Edward E. Drew Middle School in Stafford County, Loux said.

“The contest did not require the submission of a full marker application,” Loux said. “Students filled out a form suggesting a topic and providing a three-to-five sentence description of it. DHR staff wrote the marker text.”

Typically, the marker program operates through an application process in which any person or group can apply, Loux said.

Williams performed the role of Cio-Cio San in “Madame Butterfly.” The show opened at the New York City Opera on May 15, 1946. Williams would also become the first Black artist to receive a contract from the opera.

She went on to achieve worldwide acclaim, becoming a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department and touring 14 countries in Africa, performing at the White House and later touring parts of Asia, New Zealand and Australia. She was also the first Black singer in a major role at the Vienna State Opera in Austria.

The announcement of the marker’s approval coincides with an exhibit on Williams at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History. There is also a 6.5-acre park named after her at 700 Memorial Drive.

Mayor Alonzo Jones pointed out the fortuitousness of the marker’s approval.

“It goes right along with what our museum has been doing,” Jones said. “The timing is perfect and I commend them for doing that.”

Chad Martin, director of History United, said Williams’ accomplishments speaks to the greatness that can come from the region.

“For her to come from this area and make not only national but world-renowned status, that’s a testament to what we can produce in Danville and Pittsylvania County,” Martin said Sunday. “We are ecstatic that she finally is getting the recognition that she deserves.”

History United is a local group that “uses local history to encourage investment in the future of the Dan River Region and to build a strong collaborative network of organizations and individuals committed to positive change,” according to its website.

Loux was not sure when or where the sign will be unveiled.

“We will be working out those details with the city,” she said. “It will be several months before the marker is unveiled.”

The $1,700 sign panel will be paid for by the state because it was part of the governor’s contest. It costs the city about $400 to install a marker, Loux said.

The historical marker contest invites students, teachers and families to learn more about African Americans who have contributed to Virginia’s history. It seeks ideas for new signs to teach history along the state’s roadways.

The contest encourages schools to feature a different African American historical marker each day of February, provides teachers with resources to guide history discussions, promotes Black History Month events around the commonwealth and initiates a competition for students to submit ideas for new historical markers to the Virginia Department of Historical Resources.

Virginia’s Historical Highway Marker Program is an effort to recognize and chronicle events, accomplishments, sacrifices and personalities of historic importance to the state. The signs feature black lettering against a silver background and a distinctive shape.

It is the first program of its type in the United States. The Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Historic Resources manage the program.

The Commonwealth has erected more than 2,600 markers along Virginia’s roadways, but only 350 markers honor African Americans. The program was created in 1927.

“While DHR does not have control over the topics that are submitted to us, we encourage applications about subjects in African-American history,” Loux said, adding 43% of all markers approved over the last five years have been related to Black Virginians.

“It is crucial that our program tell the whole history of Virginia, which it neglected to do during its first five decades [1920s-1970s],” she said. “Virginians’ understanding of the present needs to be grounded in an accurate, comprehensive, inclusive understanding of the past.”

The Camilla Williams highway marker approval was one of 20 highlighting Black history announced by Northam on Juneteenth, or June 19.

Five of the 20 were suggested by students during the contest.

Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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