The legacy of Fannie Barrier Williams

If you’re from Brockport, you probably know about Fannie Barrier Williams. But most of us don’t recognize the name, despite her former status as a national celebrity. Barrier Williams was a suffragist, civil rights leader, orator, and changemaker. She was born and raised in Brockport, and hers was one of the only Black families in the community. In 1870, she would become the first Black woman to graduate from SUNY Brockport.

After college, Barrier Williams took a teaching position in Mississippi and experienced a level of racism she had never before encountered. It broke her spirit and led her toward a life as an activist. She moved to Boston to study piano but was asked to leave after her presence made white students uncomfortable. She met her husband, Samuel, and moved to Chicago where he started a law practice, and she became active in the local community.

Barrier Williams started by fighting for women’s rights in the workplace and pushed for housing and health facilities for women and children in poverty. She fought to become the first […] [Jan/Feb 2024 Issue]

What I learned about Fannie Barrier Williams:

and how the legacy of this change maker is being kept alive by local students.

I was so honored to visit an incredible group of scholars at SUNY Brockport last fall. They were all recipients of the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholarship. Jianna Howard is their teacher, advisor and mentor. She’s the reason they call themselves a family. 

Michael Hanlon did a fantastic job photographing the students and the buildings around campus.

I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Fannie Barrier Williams when asked to write about these scholars. I have a Masters Degree in education and I had never once heard her name in any class I took or book I was assigned to read. Before sitting down to write this article, I did a ton of research and read Fannie Barrier Williams: Crossing the Borders of Region and Race by Wanda A. Hendricks. Wanda is a history professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on Fannie’s life.

I wish more children had the opportunity to learn about the life Fannie led and the achievements she made despite being met with opposition at every turn. It’s up to all of us to share the stories of change makers like Fannie.

Please enjoy this article on Fannie Barrier Williams and the students who are achieving their dreams in her honor.

About Me

Sarah grew up surrounded by books and loved her notebooks and pens. She loved writing plays and performing them with her siblings. Her long stories won her the future author award in elementary school. As a fourth grade teacher, Sarah earned a Masters degree in writing curriculum, but decided that writing children’s books was much more fun! When she isn’t writing or reading, you can find her dancing to old records, playing board games or watching movies with her husband and three kids. She has a mini-goldendoodle named Oliver who likes to sleep on her feet while she writes. Sarah lives with her family in Victor, NY.