By Annie Cebrzynski, Evanston Women’s History Project Intern, Spring and Summer 2020.
Fannie Barrier was born in Brockport, New York to Anthony J. and Harriet Barrier in 1855. Fannie opted for a classical academic track at the State Normal School in Brockport. During her time at the State Normal School, Barrier later reported that she faced little to no racial discrimination in Brockport, especially in the First Baptist Church that her family attended regularly. Fannie Barrier and her family may not have faced a large amount of racial discrimination because her grandparents and parents were born free, which naturally allowed them to be integrated in society by the time Fannie was born. Fannie moved to Hannibal, Missouri in 1875 where she taught and attempted to uplift African American students. Her teaching stint in the south was short and she moved back home in 1877. In 1887, Fannie Barrier married Laing Williams, who was from Georgia, in Brockport, New York. They moved to Chicago in 1887, which is when Fannie Barrier Williams dove into her activism.
Early on in her marriage, Fannie Barrier Williams became active in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance, an interracial labor and reform organization, which would frequently meet at the Palmer House. In 1889, she became Vice President and served on several committees that looked to promote women’s issues. Williams also held a membership in the Prudence Crandall Literary Club, created by her husband and Lloyd Wheeler. Williams made many other club connections through her membership in this exclusive club. In 1895, Fannie Barrier Williams became the only African American member of the Chicago Woman’s Club. By allowing an African American woman into the Chicago Woman’s Club, it created an opportunity for minority women’s issues to be heard as well. The Chicago Woman’s Club would now hear and validate the needs of minority women. She also had a hand in starting organizations. In 1893, she helped found the National League of Colored Women, and in 1896, she helped find the National Association of Colored Women.
Along with her memberships in some of the most prestigious clubs at that time, Fannie Barrier Williams was also one of the most well-known and most effective African American lecturers. Her early writings mimicked the militant protest beliefs of Frederick Douglas. In fact, in May of 1893, Williams delivered one of her best known addresses at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This speech, named “The Intellectual progress of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation,” highlighted Williams’ growing literary power and potential as an orator. After 1900 Williams started to become more sympathetic to the views of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois. Her support for Washington and Du Bois is significant because both men support African American self-advocacy and nationalism, which may have pushed Williams to participate more aggressively in the suffrage movement. She was influenced by the beliefs of Washington and Du Bois, but created her own beliefs that influenced women to take political action. Williams was also known for her many speeches at local churches, such as her political speeches at the Kenwood Evangelical Church in December of 1894 and the All Souls Unitarian Church in August of 1899.
Fannie Barrier Williams was an actively engaged member of the women’s suffrage movement. She advocated for African American women to have full political participation, even if that meant crossing party lines. Williams championed the passage of the School Suffrage Bill in 1891, which allowed Illinois women voting privileges on school issues. Williams was not a marginal figure in the women’s suffrage movement, but rather a trailblazer. She shared the podium with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were two of the most well-known women suffragists in the early 20th century. Williams participated in politics by aiding Oscar Stanton DePriest, the first African American male to be elected to Congress in 1929, in his campaign and serving as the head of publicity for the Chicago branch of the Charles Evans Hughes campaign. Because of the widespread support for Charles Evans Hughes, he became the 11th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1930 to 1941.
Unfortunately, the death of Laing Williams, her husband, in 1921 slowed the important work of Fannie Barrier Williams. Williams did serve on the Library Board of Chicago from 1924-1926; however, in 1926, she returned to her hometown of Brockport, New York. Fannie Barrier Williams died of arteriosclerosis in 1944 in New York.
Biography of Fannie Barrier Williams – Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. (New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1982). pp. 656-657
Lisa G. Materson. For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1977-1932.
Crowe, Mary Davis. “Fannie Barrier Williams.” Negro History Bulletin 5, no. 8 (1942): 190-91. Accessed February 5, 2020 – http://www.jstor.org.