Williams died Sunday at her home in Bloomington, Ind., according to her attorney, Eric Slotegraaf. She died of complications from cancer, said Alain Barker, a spokesman for the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where Williams was a professor emeritus of voice.
In her City Opera debut, Williams sang what would become her signature role, Cio-Cio-San, in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." She displayed "a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has assayed the part here in many a year," according to a New York Times review of the performance.
She also appeared with the City Opera that season as Nedda, in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." The next year she performed the role of Mimi, in Puccini's "La Boheme," and in 1948 she sang the title role of Verdi's "Aida."
In 1954 she appeared as Cio-Cio-San with the London Sadler's Wells Opera and that year became the first black artist to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera.
Born Oct. 18, 1919, the daughter of a chauffeur and his wife, Williams was introduced to "Madama Butterfly," Mozart and other classical works at age 12 while growing up in Danville, Va. A Welsh voice teacher came to the segregated city to teach at a school for white girls and taught a few black girls at a private home. By that time, Williams had been singing in the choir at Danville's Calvary Baptist Church for four years.
A graduate of Virginia State College, she was teaching third grade and music in Danville schools in 1942 when she was offered a scholarship from the Philadelphia alumni association of her alma mater for vocal training in Philadelphia, where she studied under Marion Szekely-Freschl and worked as an usher in a theater.
A lifetime member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, she performed in her hometown of Danville in 1963 to raise funds to free jailed civil rights demonstrators and sang at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C., where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. She also sang at King's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the next year. The Chicago Defender lauded her in 1951 for bringing democracy to opera.
In 1950 she married Charles Beavers, a fellow Danville native and a defense attorney whose clients included Malcolm X. He died in 1970. The couple did not have children.
Williams retired from opera in 1971 and taught at Brooklyn College, Bronx College and Queens College before arriving at Indiana University. She retired from teaching in 1997.