Williams, Spencer (1893–1969)

By: G. William Jones

Type: Biography

Published: August 1, 1995

Updated: April 1, 2021

Spencer Williams, black screen actor, writer, and director, was born on July 14, 1893, in Vidalia, Louisiana. He moved as a teenager to New York City, where he became a call boy for Oscar Hammerstein and an informal student in comedy under Vaudeville comedian Bert Williams. After several years of service in the United States Army during World War I, Williams returned to New York City, where he and Lonnie Jackson recorded a vocal duet, "It Feels So Good" (1929), released on the Okeh Race Records label. Williams's work in the New York recording industry led to an invitation to move to Hollywood as a sound technician for Christy Studios. Like other studios, Christy was gearing up to meet the new challenge of sound motion pictures. Al Christy, the studio head, began making a series of black-cast short films adapted from the magazine stories of Jewish writer Octavus Roy Cohen. To give the dialogue a more authentic sound Christy hired Williams as a writer with Cohen on such 1929 titles as Melancholy Dame, Oft in the Silly Night, The Lady Fare, Music Hath Charms, and The Framing of the Shrew. Williams continued to write for films through the 1930s and also acted in many movies, usually low-budget productions meant solely for black audiences, such as Georgia Rose (1930), Bad Boy (1939), and the fascinating but little-known 'colored westerns' including Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Bronze Buckaroo (1938), Harlem Rides the Range (1939), and Two-gun Man From Harlem (1939). Williams also wrote and appeared in the first horror film with an all-black cast, Son of Ingagi (1940). In the early 1940s Williams met Al Sack, a Dallas-based film distributor whose company, Sack Amusement Enterprises, provided 'ethnic films' for many theaters in the Southwest. When Sack offered to back Williams financially in a series of feature films for black audiences, Williams eagerly agreed to write, direct, and act in what became a series of ten films, most of which were shot in and around Dallas. The content of the films varied from religious: The Blood of Jesus (1941), Brother Martin (1942), Go Down Death! (with Myra D. Hemmings; 1944); to comedy: Dirty Gerty From Harlem, U.S.A. (1946), Beale Street Mama (1946), Juke Joint (1947); to drama: Marchin' On (1943), Of One Blood (1944), The Girl in Room 20 (1945). Sack evidently gave Williams the freedom to shape the films as he saw fit. Unlike most of the genre, Williams's films are generally faithful to reality and unmarred by stereotypes. Film critic Thomas Cripps has written that The Blood of Jesus is "an exemplar of Southern Black fundamentalism, untrammeled by White intrusion." In 1991 the United States Congress selected it for entry into the National Registry of Films. Although most Americans remember Spencer Williams only as Andy Brown on the short-lived CBS Television version of "Amos N' Andy" (1950–53), his work in Texas during the 1940s was his most significant achievement. He died on December 13, 1969, at his home in Los Angeles.

Thomas Cripps, Black Film as Genre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). Wheeler W. Dixon, The "B" Directors: A Biographical Directory (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1985). Phyllis Klotman, Frame By Frame: A Black Filmography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). Edward Mapp, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1978). Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1977).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Architecture
  • Architects
  • Visual Arts
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

G. William Jones, “Williams, Spencer,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 03, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/williams-spencer.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995
April 1, 2021

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