This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
France “Fannie” Barrier Williams possessed such oratory skills that even her white peers of the women’s suffrage movement could not ignore.
Neither could a nation which deemed the call for voting and other rights for African Americans as heresy.
“Social evils are dangerously contagious,” Williams said once after her family moved from Brockport, New York, to Washington, D.C., where she found difficulty adjusting to more overt forms of racism.
“The fixed policy of persecution and injustice against a class of women who are weak and defenseless will be necessarily hurtful to the cause of all women,” Williams said.
Born Feb. 12, 1855, Williams was a noted educator and advocate for women’s rights. She worked for both social and educational reforms intending to improve the lives of African American women, despite her and her family’s status in Brockport, where they had garnered the respect of white people in a community where Blacks were scarce.
At just 15 years old, Williams was the first African American to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School (now SUNY Brockport) in 1870, according to her biography posted on blackpast.org.
Williams also studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston but was forced to leave because white students were jealous of her skills and believed she overshadowed them.
She then returned to Washington, where she married Samuel Laing Williams, a lawyer and longtime friend of Booker T. Washington. The couple moved to Chicago, where Barrier Williams became the first woman – Blackor white – to serve on the Board of the Chicago Public Library.
Still, some of Williams’ most significant accomplishments – and most poignant speeches about women’s and African American rights – lie ahead.
In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Williams addressed the World’s Congress of Representative Women in a speech titled, “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation.”
“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 women’s status is most noteworthy evidence that we have not failed to impress ourselves on the higher side of American life,” Williams said during the speech. “Less is known of our women than of any other class of Americans. No organization of far-reaching influence for their special advancement, no conventions of women to take note of their progress, and no special literature reciting the incidents, the events, and all things interesting and instructive concerning them are to be found among the agencies directing their career.
“There has been no special interest in their peculiar condition as native-born American women,” she said. “Their power to affect the social life of America, either for good or for ill, has excited not even a speculative interest. As American women generally are fighting against the 19th-century narrowness that still keeps women out of the higher institutions of learning, so our women are eagerly demanding the best education open to their race.”
Later, Williams helped found the National League of Colored Women and, in 1896, she was involved in the creation of the National Association of Colored Women. Williams, who also assisted W.E.B. Du Bois in founding the NAACP and helped establish Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1891, would earn recognition for her contribution to the women’s suffrage movement when, in 1907, she was the only African American selected to eulogize Susan B. Anthony at the National American Women Suffrage Association convention.
“The hearts of Afro-American women are too warm and too large for race hatred,” Williams said. “Long-suffering has so chastened them that they are developing a special sense of sympathy for all who suffer and fail of justice.”
Williams died in Brockport, New York, on March 4, 1944.