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Jacobs School of Music

Alain Barker
Jacobs School of Music

Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010

IU Jacobs School of Music professor emerita Camilla Williams honored with Sagamore of the Wabash at Black History Month Gala

March 4, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Renowned opera singer Camilla Williams, a professor of voice at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music from 1977 to 1997, was honored with the Sagamore of the Wabash award at a Feb. 27 Black History Month Gala organized by the City of Bloomington.

The award, the highest honor the governor of Indiana can bestow, recognizing individuals who have brought distinction and honor to the state, was presented by Indiana State Rep. Peggy Welch.

Renowned soprano Camilla Williams, right, was honored with a Sagamore of the Wabash award. The award was presented by Indiana State Representative Peggy Welch, left.

Print-Quality Photo

During the ceremony, which took place at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Bloomington, Safe and Civil City Director Beverly Calender-Anderson presented Williams with a framed proclamation from the City of Bloomington.

Williams, who lives in Bloomington, is known worldwide as the first African American soprano to perform in mainstream theaters and opera companies. In 1946, she broke the color barrier at the New York City Opera, singing the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In 1954, she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera, performing her signature part of Cio-Cio-San. She performed throughout the United States and Europe with some of the world's leading opera companies until her retirement from opera singing in 1971.

Born in 1919 in Danville, Va., Williams sang the national anthem at the White House in 1963, the same year she sang before 200,000 people prior to Martin Luther King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. She was one of the pioneering African American opera singers profiled in the 2000 PBS documentary Ada's Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera. She was also profiled in the 2006 PBS documentary The Mystery of Love.

Williams was the first African American voice professor at IU and the first African American professor at Beijing's Central Conservatory. She was one of eight women honored in 2007 by the Library of Virginia during Women's History Mont and in 2009, was saluted during a "Tribute to Camilla Williams" program by the New York City Opera and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In September 2009, she was awarded the IU President's Medal for Excellence, one of the highest honors IU's president can bestow.

Sagamore of the Wabash

The Sagamore of the Wabash award was created during the term of Governor of Indiana Ralph F. Gates, who served from 1945 to 1949. The term "sagamore" was used by American Indian Tribes of the northeastern United States to describe a tribal chief, while Wabash refers to the state river of Indiana. Previous recipients of this award have included astronauts, politicians, presidents and regular citizens. Indiana University chancellor Herman B Wells received the award six times. Elinor Ostrom, IU's Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, was honored with the award by Gov. Mitch Daniels in December 2009.

The IU Jacobs School of Music's previous recipients include Distinguished Professor David N. Baker, faculty violinist Joshua Bell and Dean Emeritus Charles H. Webb, who received three Sagamore awards -- from Governors Bowen, Orr and O'Bannon.