Fannie Barrier Williams was born in Brockport, NY on February 12, 1855, to one of the few black families in the Town of Sweden. Her father was a barber and part-time coal merchant with William Page, another African American resident of Brockport. Both the Barrier and Page family were well respected and involved members of the community. They were close friends of Frederick Douglass.
At age 15, Fannie was the first African American to graduate from the State Normal School in Brockport (now SUNY Brockport). She and her siblings were well liked and associated freely with white classmates. She was unaware of racial prejudice until she left Brockport.
From: A Northern Negro’s Autobiography: “I am a Northern colored woman, a mulatto in complexion and was born since the Civil War in a village of Western New York. My parents had a taste for good books and the refinements of life. Ours was the only colored family in the town for many years, and certainly there could not have been a relationship more cordial, respectful, and intimate than that of our family and the white people of this community.”
When Fannie took a teaching position in the South, she experienced for the first time the daily segregation, intimidation, and physical assaults that were a normal occurrence for southern African Americans. She tried to adapt but soon left the South. She hoped to study piano at the New England Conservatory of Music but was asked to withdraw because her presence upset the Southern white students.
“I never got over the pain of realizing that to be a colored woman meant that I would be mistrusted and hated.”From A Northern Negro’s Autobiography, by Fannie Barrier Williams
She left Boston and took a teaching position in Washington, D.C. and enrolled in portrait painting classes at the School of Fine Arts. While there, Fannie socialized with other educated black people and soon met Samuel Lang Williams, an outstanding law student. They married in Brockport in 1897 surrounded by her white school friends and prominent white members of the community.
After their marriage, the newlyweds moved to Chicago, and although housing was racially segregated, Fannie and her husband soon made friends with prominent white reformers and represented the ideals of their friends, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Samuel became a successful lawyer and soon organized the Prudence Crandall Study Club limited to 25 couples from the African American Community.
Samuel and Fannie also helped establish Chicago’s Providence Hospital, the first African American owned and operated hospital in America at a time when medical facilities were not available to African American patients. The hospital was staffed by bi-racial doctors and nurses.
When the Columbian Exposition was being planned in 1893, prominent black women leaders protested they were excluded from its planning. Fannie was asked to present two controversial topics. In the first, “The Intellectual Progress of Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation”, she argued to a mostly white crowd. She chastised the privileged for their ignorance and urged them to help rather than hinder those who were striving to better their lives.
In the second speech, Fannie challenged her listeners by asking, “What can religion further do to advance the condition of the colored people?” She called it a monstrous thing that so many Evangelical churches closed their doors to African Americans. Frederick Douglass was in the audience. He rose and praised the remarks of this refined, educated black lady, saying, “A new heaven is dawning on us.”
Her speeches were so well received, they launched her on a series of national lecture tours throughout the United States.
One of her most important contributions to the civil rights efforts was her work on behalf of establishing the African American Women’s Club movement, first in Chicago and then nationally. Fannie was also a leader in creating the National League of Colored Women in 1893, which changed its name to the National Association of Colored Women and 1896. These clubs provided needed services including kindergartens, mother’s groups, sewing classes, childcare centers, employment bureaus, and savings banks.
A year later when Fannie was nominated by a close white friend to join the exclusive all-white Chicago Woman’s Club, Fannie expected no opposition. To her surprise, a minority of the members fought her application for 14 months. Williams did not withdraw her name and was eventually voted in by a wide margin.
The Williamses joined W. E. B. DuBois campaign to attack racial discrimination and lynching and were early members of the National Association for The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She was the only African American to give a eulogy at the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association Convention upon the death of Susan B. Anthony.
In her later years, Williams concentrated on her writing in African American publications such as Women’s Era, New York Age, and Chicago Record Herald.
After the death of her husband in 1921, Fannie returned to Brockport in 1926. She and her sister, Ella, purchased a home on Erie Street and remained there until their deaths.
Since her youth spent in Brockport, Fannie found that much had changed for African Americans. No longer did members of the black race feel welcomed.
“Brockport was aghast in 1940 with the coming of four colored students and it took a mighty effort on the part of Ernest Hartwell to find a place for us to live. We were in town for a sort time when someone mentioned to me that there was a colored family living in town—the Barrier sisters—Ella and Fannie. I made up my mind to pay a call. The home was filled with Victoriana and the two sisters were ancient. One was blind and the other was mute from a stroke. When I arrived, the blind sister asked me to be seated and tell them about myself. The mute sister listened, and I watched her face. She understood what I was saying. I told them of my family. Conversation was difficult with their handicaps and yet they seemed to want me to stay.
I remember coming back one more time. What I remember mostly about the home was the peace and order. There seemed to be something of beauty on every surface. The walls were covered with framed testimonials to careers that had been spent in other places.
I can remember saying goodbye to them in 1940. They seemed so much like the older, gallant colored ladies of my hometown—strong, dedicated persons who seemed warmed by the achievements of their lives and the rest that they found in the home in Brockport.”From the June 11, 1994, letter by Dr. C. Bruce Lee, who attended Brockport’s Normal School for one year in 1940. Dr. C. Bruce Lee (1921-2015) left Brockport after one year. He transferred to the New York State Teachers College in Buffalo, received a B.S. in Zoology, an M.S. in Biology, and PHD in Malacology from the University of Michigan.