Fannie Barrier Williams
(1855 –1944) “I dare not cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice…”
Frances (Fannie) was born in Brockport, NY, to one of only a few black families residing in the overwhelmingly white community. Fannie would look back on her youth as a time of innocence, also believing that these childhood experiences of “social equality” ill-prepared her for the racism that she faced later in life. Her growing awareness of the unfair treatment African American women received led her to pursue a lifetime of activism and strengthened her commitment to improving their lives.
In 1870, Fannie became the first African American woman to graduate from SUNY Brockport, then Brockport State Normal School. After graduation, Fannie Barrier went to teach in the Washington D.C. area, hoping to help the freedmen. Life there was very different from what she had experienced and she was “shattered” by the discrimination she encountered.
In 1887, she married Samuel Laing Williams, and the couple moved to Chicago where Fannie’s husband opened a law practice with Ferdinand Barnett, husband of Ida B. Wells Barnett. It was in Chicago that Fannie Barrier Williams became one of the most celebrated figures of her time.
No longer teaching, Fannie became very active among Chicago reformers. She was director of the art and music department of the Prudence Crandall Study Club, formed by Chicago’s elite African-American community. She worked for the Hyde Park Colored Voters Republican Club and the Taft Colored League. An associate of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, she represented the viewpoint of African-Americans in the Illinois Women’s Alliance and lectured frequently on the need for all women - but especially black women - to have the vote.
Recognizing the lack of services available to women, Fannie helped to found the National League of Colored Women in 1893 and its successor, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. When she became aware of the lack of African-American physicians and nurses in the hospitals, she helped to create Provident Hospital in 1891, an inter-racial medical facility.
Fannie was instrumental in the creation of the Frederick Douglass Center in 1905, and the Phillis Wheatley Home for Girls. The latter became part of a national movement, and the hospital and settlement house still serve the Chicago community today.
Fannie was the first African-American and the first woman on the Chicago Library Board, waging a battle for the representation of African-Americans at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. She succeeded in having two staff appointments designated for African-Americans. Fannie herself was appointed as Clerk in charge of Colored Interests in the Department of Publicity and Promotions. She was also invited to present two major addresses, one to the World’s Congress of Representative Women and the other to the World’s Parliament of Religions. In the first, The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by a discussion and words of praise from Frederick Douglass, Fannie disputed the notion that slavery had rendered African-American women incapable of the same moral and intellectual levels as other women and called on all women to unite to claim their inalienable rights.
Brockport Cemetery (aka High Street Cemetery)
Lot 415 (West Entrance to the end on right)
79 High Street, Brockport, NY 14420