In 1910, Florenz Ziegfeld crossed the color line and introduced Bert Williams to his Ziegfeld Follies audience. Williams was one of the finest pantomimists and comedians in vaudeville, performing in the burnt-cork traditions of the minstrel show – a black man who put on a black face. He performed in the Follies almost continuously for the next nine years.
Born in the West Indies, Williams rose to stardom in vaudeville with song and dance man George Walker. In the act, the fast-talking Walker always tried to persuade the slower and more cautious Williams to join one of his get-rich-quick schemes.
Sadly, despite all his success on stage, Williams still suffered the indignities of racism. In 1922, plagued with health problems, but refusing to retire, Bert Williams collapsed onstage and later died. He was 48 years old.