Henry Sylvester Williams

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Williams, Henry Sylvester

March 24, 1867
March 26, 1911

Henry Sylvester Williams was one of the ambitious, confident, outspoken, and politically conscious blacks who emerged in the British West Indies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His parents were Barbadians who migrated to Trinidad in the second half of the nineteenth century (Williams was born in Barbados). Williams's father worked as a wheelwright on the Bon Air sugar estate in Arouca. In 1887 Williams was appointed headmaster of a primary school and simultaneously served as the Registrar of Births and Deaths in South Trinidad. His teaching career abruptly ended in 1891 when he decided to emigrate to New York City. While in the United States, he became acutely aware of the oppression of African Americans, particularly those disenfranchised in the South.

After two years, Williams left the United States and settled in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. Between 1893 and 1894, he enrolled for a law degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, but he never completed the course. The desire to travel led him to England in 1896. He worked as a lecturer for the Church of England Temperance Society, where he met and married a white woman named Agnes Powell. Subsequently, Williams enrolled at the University of London, and in 1897 he gained admittance to Gray's Inn, where he successfully completed his legal studies.

On September 24, 1897, Williams founded the African Association and served as its honorary secretary. The purposes of the association were "to encourage a feeling of unity and to facilitate friendly intercourse among Africans in general." It also sought "to promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent" (Mathurin, 1976, p. 41). These goals were to be achieved by appealing to the governments of local (occupied or conquered) countries or regions, as well as the governments of imperial countries (United States, Germany, France, Belgium, and Britain). Williams is credited with having coined the term Pan-African, and he spearheaded the organization of the first Pan-African Conference, which took place July 23 to 25, 1900, at Westminster Town Hall in London. One of the aims of the Pan-African Conference was to create a common bond or linkage among the world's blacks. Conference participants unanimously adopted an Address to the Nations of the World, which was circulated to the major imperial powers. This document contained an appeal for an end to racial prejudice and demanded that Britain grant "responsible government to the black colonies of Africa and the West Indies" (Mathurin, 1976, p. 71). Among the prominent blacks from the United States at the Conference were W. E. B. Du Bois, a professor at Atlanta University, and John L. Love, a teacher at a black school in Washington who served as secretary of the Pan-African Conference in 1900.

In the aftermath of this historic conference, Williams continued to take an active interest in the conditions and progress of persons of African descent. He attended the Anti-Slavery Congress in Paris from August 6 to 8, 1900. A year later, Williams attended the annual meeting of the National Afro-American Council held in Philadelphia.

Williams briefly returned to the West Indies and founded a branch of the Pan-African Association in Trinidad on June 28, 1901. During this tour, he also visited Jamaica and addressed various black groups. In October 1901 Williams began publishing a monthly journal, the Pan-African, but it ceased publication after less than a year. In 1903 Williams emigrated to South Africa, and he became the first black lawyer to practice in Cape Town. Between 1903 and 1908, Williams visited a number of African countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, to witness the living and working conditions of Africans.

By 1905 Williams had returned to London and become a candidate in local elections. On November 2, 1906, he was elected councilor on the St. Marylebone Council. In 1906, while in London, he was appointed vice president of the Trinidad Workingmen's Association. This was a radical working-class organization in Trinidad that campaigned for political and social reforms. In August 1908 Williams returned to Trinidad and spent his final years as a lawyer in the country's capital, Port of Spain.

Williams was a visionary West Indian and is credited with having sown the seeds of Pan-Africanism, which influenced such Caribbean personalities as Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, C. L. R. James, and George Padmore. The influence of the historic Pan-African Conference of 1900 was felt throughout the twentieth century, even serving as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, and the anticolonial struggles of the third world.

See also Pan-Africanism


Hooker, J. R. Henry Sylvester Williams: Imperial Pan-Africanist. London: Collings, 1975.

Mathurin, Owen Charles. Henry Sylvester Williams and the Origins of the Pan-African Movement, 18691911. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1976.

jerome teelucksingh (2005)

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Henry Sylvester Williams

The Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911) organized the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. He traveled widely to promote pan-African solidarity.

Henry Sylvester Williams was born of ambitious, lower-middle-class parents in the British colony of Trinidad on Feb. 15, 1869. He attended the Normal School in Port-of-Spain and qualified as a primary school teacher at the age of 17. For the next five years he served as a headmaster. In 1891 he went to the United States, where he worked at odd jobs for two years. This was a time when the gains made by black Americans in the Reconstruction years (1867-1877) were being rapidly lost: blacks were being disfranchised, subjected to a Jim Crow mentality, and virtually reenslaved economically. William's experience in the United States doubtless stimulated his racial consciousness. In 1893 he became a law student at Dalhousie University but did not complete his degree.

In 1896 Williams emigrated to England, settling in London. Here he supported himself as a temperance and thrift lecturer. In 1897 he resumed his study of law at Gray's Inn, passed the bar examination in 1900, and began practice in 1902. In 1898 he married a middle-class English woman, by whom he had several children.

First Pan-African Conference

In London Williams's feelings of racial solidarity were further strengthened by meeting blacks from various parts of the world. He learned from Africans of their exploitation and degradation by Europeans. In 1897 he formed the African Association to publicize injustices against African peoples everywhere and to promote their interests.

To do this more dramatically as well as to foster a sense of unity among all African peoples, Williams convened the First Pan-African Conference in London, July 23-25, 1900, with himself as general secretary. It was attended by some 30 delegates from the United States, Liberia, and Ethiopia, among whom were the African Americans Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Williams's chief collaborator) and W. E. B. Du Bois, who was to play a leading role in the five Pan-African Conferences held between 1919 and 1945.

The tone and demands of the conference were moderate. It called for friendly relations between the Caucasian and African races; it appealed to the British government "not [to] overlook the interest and welfare of the native races" in its colonies; and in an address to the "nations of the world," it protested against "denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization." The conference formed the Pan-African Association with Williams as honorary secretary, and it was decided to hold a conference every two years. It was this conference which gave currency to the term pan-Africanism.

Proselytizing Pan-Africanism

After the conference Williams remained virtually the sole organizer of the Pan-African Association. In 1901 he visited Trinidad and Jamaica, where he established branches of the Pan-African Association, and the United States, where he propagandized for the pan-African cause primarily at the annual meeting in Philadelphia of the National Afro-American Council, then the leading African American civil rights organization. Williams returned to London that year and published the Pan-African, a monthly journal which collapsed after a few issues. Williams did not succeed in organizing a second Pan-African Conference, partly because of shortage of funds—perhaps partly, too, because of doubts of black leaders as to the efficacy of such conferences.

In 1903 Williams visited South Africa. He practiced law in Cape Town and played the role of agitator in his quest to promote African interests against minority white domination. He was regarded as dangerous by the ruling South African whites and was probably forced to leave. Back in London in 1905, he became involved in leftist British politics. In 1906 he won a seat on the St. Marylebone Borough Council, becoming probably the first black elected official in Britain.

Between 1905 and 1907 Williams played host and lawyer to individual Africans as well as to African delegations seeking redresses from the British government. In 1908 he visited Liberia; it is very likely that while there he conferred with Edward Blyden, the outstanding pan-African intellectual. Later that year Williams returned via London to his native Trinidad. He practiced law, lectured on Africa, and was actively connected with the Working Men's Association, one of Trinidad's earliest political organizations. Williams died on March 26, 1911.

Further Reading

There are no studies of Williams. Background studies include Colin Legum, Pan-Africanism: A Short Political Guide (1962; rev. ed. 1965), and Joseph L. Anene and Godfrey N. Brown, Africa in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1966). □

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