Williams, Fannie Barrier 1855–1944

views updated May 14 2018

Fannie Barrier Williams 18551944

Social reformer

Propelled Into the Spotlight

Committed to Womens Club Movement

Devoted Efforts to Chicago Community

Selected Writings


Fannie Barrier Williams was a prominent and respected leader in the battle for equal rights for African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Active throughout her life in political, civic, and womens groups, she dedicated her lifes work to advancing opportunities for African-American women.

Born in Brockport, New York, a small town near Rochester, on February 12, 1855, Fannie Barrier Williams was one of three children born to Anthony J. Barrier, a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Harriet (Prince) Barrier of Cherburne, New York. Williams family was for many years the only African American family in the town. Her father, a barber, coal merchant, and homeowner, was an active and well-respected leader in the community and in the local Baptist church. Williams attended the local schools and ultimately graduated from the State Normal School in Brockport (now the State University of New York College at Brockport) in 1870. In this sheltered, affluent environment, Williams remained relatively ignorant of racial strife. Rather, as Wanda Hendricks noted, she felt on equal terms with her white acquaintances.

After graduating from the State Normal School Williams ventured South to teach freed Black southerners. It was here that her innocence regarding racism and discrimination were abruptly crushed. As she commented in A Northern Negros Biography, published in the Independent, the conditions in the South shattered her cherished ideals. She was quickly taught that Jim Crow laws, rather than social equality, constituted the law of the land, and whites in the South expected her to adhere to a strict segregationist code. Later in the article, Williams wrote: I have never quite recovered from the shock and pain of my first bitter realization that to be a colored woman is to be discredited, mistrusted, and often meanly hated.

Needless to say, Williams did not stay long in the South and instead moved northward to Washington, D.C. There she taught in the public schools and explored her artistic talents, particularly her skill as a portrait painter. She also attended courses both at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and the School of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. It was during this time that she met S. Laing Williams, a native of Georgia, an 1881 graduate of the University of Michigan, a former schoolteacher, and a promising law student. Upon completion of his law degree in 1887, Fannie Barrier and Laing Williams married and immediately moved to Chicago. There Laing Williams worked as one of eleven assistant attorneys in Northern Illinois and ultimately served as an assistant district attorney in Chicago.

Propelled Into the Spotlight

Initially upon settling in Chicago, Fannie devoted her efforts to helping her husband establish his law practice. Then slowly she began to establish herself in the Chicago community. Working to secure recognition for African Americans and sitting on the Board of Control at the Worlds Colombian Exposition planned for Chicago in 1893, she began to gain notoriety. In May of

At a Glance

Born Fannie Barrier on February 12, 1855 in Brockport, NY; died March 4,1944 in Brockport, NY. Father Anthony J. Barrier (barber, coal merchant), mother Harriet Prince Barrier, one brother, one sister. Married S. Laing Williams (lawyer) in 1887. Education: graduate, State Normal School, Brockport, NY, 1870; attended New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA; attended School of Fine Arts, Washington, D,C

Career: Teacher and founder, Provident Hospital, Chicago, IL, 1891; founder, Frederick Douglass Center, Chicago, IL, 1905; contributor to Voice of the Negro, Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro, Chicago Record-Herald, New York Age, Womens Era, and A New Negro for a New Century; notable orator.

Selected Memberships: Chicago Womens Club; corresponding secretary, Board of Directors, Phyllis Wheatley Home Association; Prudence CrandalI Study Club; Chicago Library Board, 1924-26; All Souls Unitarian Church and Abraham Lincoln Center; chairperson, committee on state schools for dependent children, Illinois Womans Alliance.

1893 Williams was propelled into the spotlight when she addressed the Departmental Congress of the National Association of Loyal Women of American Liberty at the Worlds Congress of Representative Women.

Williams 1894 speech, entitled The Intellectual Progress and Present Status of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation, reflected the traditional views of contemporary African American leaders. Favoring the organization of African Americans as a means to advance the community, she claimed to her audience that slavery provoked immorality among African Americans. In later speeches, Williams stressed issues specific to women, particularly the tendency to condemn all African-American women as sexually immoral and the lack of employment opportunities available to women of her race.

But Williams did not dwell upon the negative. Her speech continued: That the discussion of progressive womanhood in this great assemblage of the representative women of the world is considered incomplete without some account of the colored womens status is a most noteworthy evidence that we have not failed to impress ourselves on the higher side of American life. Williams further emphasized the willingness of African-American women to participate in the aspects of womanhood so long denied to them. The longing to be something better than they were when freedom found them has been the most notable characteristic in the development of these women. This constant striving for equality has given an upward direction to all the activities of colored women.... Here Williams echoes her earlier remarks regarding the correlation between oppression and immorality. Only a free person can choose the noble life.

Having considered their progress to date, Williams then addressed the potential for African American women: Today they feel strong enough to ask for but one thing, and that is the same opportunity for the acquisition of all kinds of knowledge that may be accorded to other women.... She went on to note, however, that black women are not given the same opportunities as white women. She claimed that African American women are the only women in the country for whom real ability, virtue, and special talents count for nothing when they become applicants for respectable employment. Preparation among African-American women for suitable occupations was not met with real opportunity.

Not only did her speech win the praise of the press and of African American leaders alike, but Williams efforts also secured the inclusion of African American affairs in the exhibits planned for the celebration. Moreover, this address, together with her talk in September of 1893 at the Worlds Parliament of Religions, garnered her national recognition as a talented and articulate orator. Within the year, Williams was overwhelmed with speaking engagements.

In 1894 Williams again found herself in the focus of the spotlight when she was nominated for membership into the elite, exclusively white, Chicago Womens Club. For fourteen months the club deliberated admitting an African-American woman before offering her admission in 1895. In essence, the club awarded her a victory in her staunch fight for social equality. Her controversial acceptance not only caused some members to withdraw from the club but also forced the General Federation of Womens Clubs to confront the issue of African-American membership. Williams remained the only African American woman in the club for thirty years.

Committed to Womens Club Movement

Williams membership in the Chicago Womens Club did not derail her efforts on behalf of African American women. Unobtrusively and often with success, she urged employers to hire qualified African-American women for responsible positions such as stenographic and clerical jobs. Concurrently, her speeches and articles urged women to organize as their white women counterparts did and to focus their attention on race problems which particularly affected women, including employment, child welfare, family, education, and religion. Based at least in part on her experience with the Chicago Womens Club, Williams political activism became increasingly expressed through her commitment to the black womens club movement.

Williams believed that the womens club movement could provide a means to arouse African-American women from their discouragement. In essence, for Williams the club movement became a means of ameliorating the subsocial condition of an entire race of people. She campaigned tirelessly for the education for African-American women and often spoke of the need for African-American women to emancipate their minds and spirits. Only with an education would they be able to move out of domestic work, where sexual harassment was so prevalent, and seek equal employment opportunities. She also firmly believed that these women could achieve academic excellence despite the social stigma against them.

Williams was a moving spirit behind the 1893 formation of the National League of Colored Women and its successor, the National Association of Colored Women, first assembled in 1896. She was also a strong force behind the Illinois Womans Alliance. By 1900 the African American womens clubs in Chicago came together to form the Colored Womens Conference of Chicago. Expansive in their mission, the clubs operated kindergartens, mothers clubs, sewing schools, day nurseries, employment bureaus, parent-teacher associations, and a penny-savings bank.

Fannie Barrier Williams was petite, light-corn-plex-ioned, a lively conversationalist, a talented musician, possessed a winning personality, and worked tirelessly as a social welfare reformer. Though more familiar with black leaders of her time because of her affluent background, Williams worked hard promoting aand uniting the black masses. She was unwilling to accept the limitations imposed upon African American women. In fact, it is said that she once retained her seat in a first-class, whites only coach of a Southern train by coolly informing the conductor, Je suis française. She later wrote of this incident in A Northern Negros Autobiography, I quieted my conscience by recalling that there was quite a strain of French blood in my ancestry, and too that their barbarous laws did not allow a lady to be both comfortable and honest.

Immersed as she was in the daily plight of the African-American family, Fannie Williams represented one of the earliest African-American leaders to identify residential segregation and limited employment opportunities as two of the most critical issues impacting race relations. Segregated housing, she often argued, demoralized and undermined family life, bred disease and crime, corrupted the political process, and denied to African Americans the economic, cultural, and health advantages available to whites. Employment prejudice, moreover, blocked advancement, stifled ambition, and perpetuated the stereotype of the African American an incompetent and shiftless. While able to see beyond racial boundaries, in 1904 she admitted in A Northern Negros Autobiography that, I cannot be counted for my full value, be that much or little, I dare not cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice, but progress is painful and my faith is often strained to the breaking point.

Devoted Efforts to Chicago Community

Without children of her own to consume her energies, Williams devoted herself particularly to causes within the Chicago community. Similar to her work with the womens clubs, creating organizations and institutions as mechanisms to service and empower African Americans was critical to Williams various initiatives. Thus in 1891, for instance, she helped to found Provident Hospital and its Training School of Nurses. Even though the hospital served an interracial population, Williams argued for a segregated training school for African-American nurses on the basis that there were schools serving only white women, but none for the African-American female community. Not having training specifically for black women could leave the few positions available to African Americans to be filled by trained white women. In 1905 she further aided in the establishment of the Frederick Douglass Center, an interracial settlement project on Chicagos South Side under the auspices of white Unitarian minister Celia Parker Woolley. The center, located in a predominately African-American ward was established to encourage better relations among blacks and whites.

On a national level, Williams ensured that her voice was heard through her prolific writings and lectures. Her pieces were most commonly found in the Voice of the Negro, but her articles also appeared in periodicals including Progress of a Race: or, The Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro, the Chicago Record-Herald, New York Age, and Womans Era, a monthly newspaper covering news about and by African-American women. Noted for her eloquence, Williams tone tended to be moderate rather than militant. As evidenced by her writings, her primary concern focused on the vindication of the morals of African-American women. Racial prejudice multiplied the difficulties faced by American women and removing this prejudice was a necessary first step to rebuilding African-American morality. But self-improvement through education and organization remained critical as well.

While early lectures and writings display the more militant tone of Frederick Douglass, after 1900 Williams took a more conciliatory stance and advocated strongly on behalf of Booker T. Washington and his program of accommodation and self-improvement. She did concede that Washingtons emphasis on practical training had value in pursuing employment opportunities, but maintained that, to some extent, such training should be broadened by the study of science and art. Like Washington, she argued that the hope of African American advancement was practically dependent ... upon the dominant race. She, too, spoke of the need for white philanthropy and downplayed the issue of social discrimination. Interestingly, the Williamses proved to be Washingtons principal Chicago contacts, which gained them his assistance (particularly with Laings 1908 appointment as an assistant United States district attorney) and the enmity of those Chicago leaders who favored more relations with whites. Ultimately, though, while Fannie segued from a militant to a more conciliatory stance, she never abandoned her belief in the necessity of equal opportunity and equal rights.

In 1912 Fannie and her husband began contributing to the newly-established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Most intriguing for Fannie, however, remained the crusade for womens suffrage. In her work and in her lectures, she urged African American women to assume a leading role in this and all womens rights movements.

After the death of Laing Williams in 1921, Williams activism waned. In 1924, however, she became not only the first African American but also the first woman to serve on the Library Board of Chicago, a position she held until 1926. At the end of her term she returned to her family home in Brockport to live with her sister. In 1944, at the age of 89, she died of arteriosclerosis and was buried in the Barrier family plot at the High Street Cemetery in Brockport.

Selected Writings

The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation. (An Address).

A Northern Womens Autobiography. Independent, July 14, 1904.



American National Biography, pp. 455-456.

American Women Writers, p. 248.

Black Women in America, pp. 1259-1261.

Chicago Public Librarys Notable Chicago African Americans.

Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Libertys Women, pp. 447-448.

Notable American Women, pp. 620-622.

Notable Black American Women, pp. 1251-1254.

Women in American History.


Carlton-LaNey, Iris. African American social work pioneers response to need. Social Work, July 1999.

Williams, Fannie Barrier. A Northern Womens Autobiography. Independent, July 14, 1904.


Williams, Fannie Barrier Address, The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation. In The Worlds Congress of Representative Women. May Wright Sewall (Ed.). Chicago: Rand McNally, 1894. Also available online: HREF=http://www.binghamton.edu/womanhist/ibw/docl3.htm. http://www.binghamton.edu/womanhist/ibw/doc13.htm.

Lisa S. Weitzman

Williams, Fannie Barrier

views updated May 21 2018

Williams, Fannie Barrier

February 12, 1855
March 4, 1944

Fannie Barrier Williams's career in the black women's club movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is representative of the hard work and dedication of this network of women and of their success as community organizers. Fannie Barrier was born to a free black family in Brockport, New York. After graduating from the State Normal School in her hometown, she taught school in the South and in Washington, D.C. Her experiences with racism in these contexts focused her interests on working for racial uplift.

Barrier married S. Laing Williams, a young lawyer, in 1887 and the two settled in Chicago, where they worked closely with Ida Wells-Barnett and her husband, Ferdinand Barnett. From this point Williams became involved with a wide range of organizations and activities. Along with Wells-Barnett, she pressed for the inclusion of African Americans in the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. She worked with women's clubs, black and white, in Chicago and across the country and gained a reputation as an effective leader and lecturer.

In 1893 Williams became one of the founding members of the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, which would be among the founding organizations of the National Association of Colored Women three years later. She was also a close associate of T. Thomas Fortune and Emmett Scott, the founders of the National Negro Business League, and was elected the organization's corresponding secretary in 1902. The league was ideologically aligned with Booker T. Washington's economic and political program, and Williams's work here caused a break with the more radical Barnetts.

Williams went on to work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and to be a strong advocate of women's suffrage. After her husband's death in 1921, she returned to her hometown, where she lived until her own death.

See also Black Women's Club Movement; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Association of Colored Women; National League for the Protection of Colored Women; Wells-Barnett, Ida B.


Loewenberg, Bert James, and Ruth Bogin, eds. Black Women in Nineteenth Century American Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Williams, Fannie Barrier. The New Woman of Color: The Collected Writings of Fannie Barrier Williams, 18931918, edited by Mary Jo Deegan. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.

judith weisenfeld (1996)
Updated bibliography

Williams, Fannie Barrier

views updated May 14 2018

WILLIAMS, Fannie Barrier

Born 12 February 1855, Brockport, New York; died 4 March 1944, Brockport, New York

Daughter of Anthony J. and Harriet Prince Barrier; married S. Laing Williams, 1887

Born, raised, and educated in the small town of Brockport, near Rochester, New York, Fannie Barrier Williams first encountered racial prejudice when she began her teaching career among the freedmen "in one of the ex-slave States." After graduating from the academic department of the Normal School at Brockport, she later attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and the School of Fine Arts in Washington. She moved to Chicago after her marriage to a lawyer and spent most of her married life there.

Williams was the only black woman allowed to give a major address before the World's Congress of Representative Women at the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. She was the first black member in the Chicago Women's Club and an impelling force in the black women's club movement. She was also instrumental in founding the interracial Provident Hospital in 1891 and the Frederick Douglass Center in 1905 and was the first woman—black or white—to be appointed to Chicago's Library Board in 1924.

For many years, Williams gave lectures throughout the country. A prolific essayist, she wrote primarily for the Voice of the Negro, but her articles also appeared in several other periodicals. Progress of a Race: or, The Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro (edited by J. W. Gibson and W. H. Crogman, 1902) features her long historical essay "Club Movement among Negro Women."

A pervasive concern evident in Williams' speeches and essays is the vindication of the morals of black women, which had been attacked by some because of the high number of illegitimate black babies. In an article in Voice of the Negro (June 1905), she writes, "It is because of this tyranny of race prejudice that the colored girl is called upon to endure and overcome more difficul-ties than confront any other women in our country." She maintains, in the essay in Progress of a Race, that equality will never come "until the present social stigma is removed from the home and the women of the race."

Williams was criticized by some blacks for her assertion in the 1893 speech in Chicago (printed in World's Congress of Representative Women, edited by M. W. Sewall, 1893) that the "colored people are in no way responsible for the social equality movement." Much of her later writing espouses a doctrine of assimilation.

The tone of all her writing, while eloquent, is moderate rather than militant. While a large part of her writing is concerned with her advocacy of justice for blacks, particularly women, as a well-educated, genteel woman writing at the turn of the century, Williams also wrote articles reviewing books, discussing art, advocating travel, and exploring domestic matters.


Davis, E. L., Lifting as They Climb (1933). Flexner, E., Century of Struggle (1959). Lerner, G., Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972). Lowenberg, B. J., and R. Bogin, eds., Black Women in Nineteenth Century American Life (1976). Martin, C. E., The Story of Brockport, 1829-1929 (1929?). Mossell, Mrs. N. F., The Work of the Afro American Woman (1908). Spear, A., Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890-1920 (1967).

Reference works:

NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Profiles of Negro Womanhood, 1619-1900 (1964).