Williams, Elizabeth Sprague (1869–1922)

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Williams, Elizabeth Sprague (1869–1922)

American social worker . Born on August 31, 1869, in Buffalo, New York; died on August 19, 1922, in New York City; daughter of Frank Williams (a businessman) and Olive (French) Williams (a teacher); Smith College, B.S., 1891; Columbia University, A.M., 1896; children: (adopted) one.

Joined College Settlement as a resident (1896), and served as head worker (1898–1919); assisted in preparing Tenement House Exhibition by Charity Organization Society (1900); founded Mount Ivy (a summer camp for inner-city youth); founded the Lack-awanna, New York, Social Center (1911); founded an orphanage in Serbia (1919).

Elizabeth Sprague Williams was born in 1869 in Buffalo, New York, the youngest of seven children of Frank Williams, a successful businessman, and Olive French Williams , a teacher. Elizabeth was a good student, and her academic achievements landed her at Smith College, from which she graduated in 1891. While at Smith, she had become interested in social settlement movements such as Jane Addams ' Hull House in Chicago, where individuals would take up residence in underprivileged communities and facilitate education, health-care awareness and, in the case of immigrant communities, "Americanization." Encouraged by her success in starting children's classes and organizing a small library within Buffalo, Williams moved to New York City, earning an A.M. from Columbia University in 1896. She also worked as a resident at the College Settlement near the Columbia campus, and became head worker there in 1898.

During its 21 years under Williams' guidance, the College Settlement grew in stature, becoming increasingly active through its participation in numerous programs designed to promote the welfare of the entire city. In an effort to improve the often dismal conditions in working-class neighborhoods like the city's Lower East Side, Williams promoted public participation in such programs as the Charity Organization Society, the Consumers' League, the Public Education Association, the Outdoor Recreation League, and the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. Taking an active role in individual programs, she also acted as the organization's representative, testifying on the College Settlement's successes before the state's Tenement House Commission in 1900. Among Williams' priorities was expanding educational opportunities among children, who, she reasoned, would be most receptive to the American values and habits presented, and she provided a link between the philosophies of the settlement movement and the theories underlying the push toward vocational and progressive education. She also encouraged group activities as a way to reduce the influence of dance halls, bars, and gangs among urban young people, and founded Mount Ivy, a summer camp located on a farm in Rockland County, New York, that operated under the auspices of the College Settlement.

A compassionate and caring individual, Williams resigned her position as head of the College Settlement in 1919 to travel to war-torn Serbia, where she founded an orphanage near the Albanian border. With funding from various American sources, she was able to establish a train route to resupply the facility before turning control of its operation over to the Serbian government on her return to the United States two years later. Although Serbia was quick to acknowledge Williams' contribution in the form of a royal decoration, she was not alive to receive it, having succumbed to cancer in 1922, age 52, less than a year after coming home. She left behind an adopted child, a Serbian orphan she had brought with her from Eastern Europe.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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