Frances Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was born in Brockport, New York, to a prominent Black family, one of only a few in Brockport. She did not experience much overt discrimination growing up. Barrier graduated as the first African American from Brockport State Normal School. Upon graduation, she moved to Hannibal, Missouri, to teach Black students and experienced a level of discrimination that led her to become a reformer for the oppressed, especially women of color.
Later, she gained a teaching position in Washington, D.C., and met her husband, a lawyer. They moved to Chicago where he had a successful law practice, and they joined the city’s elite Black community and became activists. Williams joined the Illinois Women Alliance (IWA), an interracial labor and reform organization, becoming vice president in 1889. She represented the viewpoint of Black Americans in the IWA and lectured frequently on the need for all women, but especially Black women, to have the vote. In an 1893 speech, she argued that former female slaves were the equals of other women and urged white women to support suffrage for all.
Williams’ contribution to the suffrage movement was recognized in 1907 when she was the only African American selected to eulogize Susan B. Anthony at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention. Williams founded several organizations for colored women between 1893 and 1909 and was the first Black woman to serve on the Board of the Chicago Public Library and to be inducted into the Chicago Woman’s Club in 1896.
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