Monday, January 19, 2009

Madame Marie Selika: First African American to Perform at the White House

Madame Marie Selika Williams

When President Teddy Roosevelt invited the Tuskegee educator Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1901, there was a storm of media protest. But years earlier, the first African Americans had been invited to the White House without incident. Introduced to President Rutherford B. and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes by Frederick Douglass, soprano Madame Marie Selika, known as the "Queen of Staccato" became the first African American to perform at the White House. On the evening of November 13, 1878 Marie Selika and her husband, opera singer Sampson Williams, entertained the President and the First Lady and their guests in the Green Room. Her performance included Verdi's "Ernami, Involami," Thomas Moore's "The Last Rose of Summer." "Ave Maria," and Richard Mullard's "Staccato Polka." Williams then sang "Far Away" for the more than fifteen guests who had been invited by the Hayeses to join them that evening.

The following year, First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes accepted Madame Selika's invitation to attend her concert at St. Luke's Protestant Episcopal Church. (It would be another 17 years before another First Lady attended an African American church.) After separating from St. Mary's, a mission church, St. Luke's became the first independent African American church in Washington, D. C. Madame Selika's performance was in support of the construction of the new church built in 1880 on 15th Street NW.

St. Luke's Protestant Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.

Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1849, Marie moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio shortly after her birth. Through the patronage of a wealthy benefactor, she began studying music as a child. Selika eventually moved to San Francisco where she studied with Signora Bianchi. In 1876, Marie made her debut as a concert soprano. Following her White House performance, Selika toured the nation, performing for all-black audiences. During her career, she made two European tours that included command performances for Queen Victoria at St. James Hall.

A leading soprano, Selika nevertheless, did not reach her full potential because of racial prejudice. During the 1890s, she opened a music studio in Cleveland, Ohio. Following her husband's death in 1911, Selika retired from the stage. At the age of 67, she accepted a teaching position at the Martin-Smith School of Music in New York, one of the most important musical institutions for African Americans in the United States. Madame Marie Selika Williams died in New York in 1937.

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