Born in 1889 in Illinois and raised in Milwaukee, Gladys Mae Sellers attended school through the 10th grade. As a young adult in the 1910s, Gladys married Albert Smack and was active in St. Mark AME Church, leading many musical programs there and in the wider community. The African American Chicago Defender and Wisconsin Weekly Blade newspapers documented her musical accomplishments. Gladys sometimes performed with Albert, who had sung tenor with a traveling minstrel group in his younger years. She performed in Milwaukee and Chicago, as well as in Madison, Indianapolis, and elsewhere in the region, collaborating with accomplished musicians of the day including The Weaver Brothers and John H. Wickliffe’s Ginger Orchestra. Then, in the early 1920’s, Gladys left Milwaukee and created a new persona in New York. Using the stage name “Madame Goldye Steiner,” she was one of a handful of African American vocalists who performed Jewish sacred music in concert halls during the “golden age” of European Jewish liturgical chazzanus vocal music. Current research shows Madame Goldye to be the only African American woman to have been a part of this trend.
Madame Goldye lived in New York for two decades, appearing on east coast stages and on early radio, even appearing in two large Broadway musicals–David Belasco’s Lulu Belle, and the avant-garde H.I.M. by e. e. Cummings–and joining the Actor’s Equity Association union. She lived near Harlem with her second husband, Richard Armstead, through the mid-1940’s when they returned to Milwaukee. Gladys died in 1960, and is buried in Milwaukee in an unmarked grave at Mt. Olivet cemetery on 39th and Morgan Streets. With your generous donation through the Madame Goldye Rematriation project, headstones for Gladys and her husband will be purchased.