Fannie Barrier Williams

(1855-1944)

 

Fannie Barrier Williams realized that racism was a major problem, but also realized that sexism was an even greater problem in equality. For, as she said, "to be a colored woman is to be discredited, mistrusted and often meanly hated." Through times of strife and stress she worked, sometimes successfully, to eliminate discrimination against black women.

Born in Brockport, New York, to affluent parents Anthony J. and Harriet Prince Barrier she led a very sheltered life as one of three children. She socialized with others and attended parties regardless of race, feeling on equal terms with her peers. She graduated in 1870 from the local State Normal School.

A rude awakening to her innocence of racism came when she ventured South with others to teach freed Blacks. There, "Jim Crow laws" were prevalent and she quickly came to the realization that social equality was not given to blacks in the South and she was expected to adhere to that racist and segragationist code. This attitude, she learned very quickly, conveyed that simply because she was black, she was part of an inferior race.

She left the South post haste and found a teaching position in Washington, D.C. public schools. While there, she began to explore her artistic talents as a student of several Washington artists and became a skilled portrait painter. She also spent some time studying at New England Conservatory of Music and in private Boston studios.

While in Washington, D.C., she met a young law student from Georgia and graduate of the University of Michigan, S. Laing Williams. They married in 1887, when he received his law degree and moved to Chicago. There he worked as assistnat attorney in Northern Illinois and became, with a recommendation from Booker T. Washington, assistant district attorney in Chicago.

At Chicago World's Fair in May of 1893, when Fannie spoke in front of the Departmental Congress of the National Association of Loyal Women of American Liberty at the World's Congress of Representative Women, she gained great notoriety in her speech "The Intellectual Progress and Present Status of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation." She said that Black women "are the only women in the country for whom the real ability, virtue, and special talents count for nothing when they become applicants for respectable employment." Months later she told the World's Parliamnet of Religions "...it should be the province of religion to unite, and not to separate men and women according to superficial differences of race line." Thus, she becmae swamped with requests for speaking engagements.

Fannie became an active social worker and reformer in Chicago, and took an essential role in the founding of a training school for Black nurses at Provident Hospital, in 1891, which she had also helped establish that same year. By 1896, after being the Chicago reporter for the Women's Era, Fannie helped establish the National League of Colored Women (now the National Association of Colored Women.) She was also chairperson of the committee on state schools for dependent children for the Illinois Woman's Alliance.

In 1894, Fannie was nominated to become a member in the all white Chicago Women's Club. The group spent fourteen months deliberating on whether or not to admit a black woman. Finally admitted to the club in 1895, her admission caused some of the members to withdraw their membership.

From 1924-1926, she became the first black and the first woman to serve on the Chicago Library Board. In 1926 she returned to her home in New York to live with her sister, and in 1944, died there at the age of 89 years of arteriosclerosis.


 
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