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Belonging – Fannie Barrier Williams

Written by Janeen K. Grohsmeyer.

Our hearts should be too warm and too large for hatred.

More than one hundred fifty years ago, back when trains were new and airplanes and cars hadn't been invented, back when women always wore long skirts and everyone wore hats, a girl named Fannie Barrier lived in a town in New York State.

Fannie lived with her older brother, George, and her older sister, Ella, and their parents. During the week, Fannie and George and Ella would get up and get dressed and eat breakfast, and then go to school. In the afternoon, they would play in the woods or maybe go sledding in the snow with their friends, then do their chores, eat dinner, do their homework, and go to bed.

On Sundays, the whole Barrier family would go to church. Fannie's father was a deacon, a leader at the church. Her mother taught Bible school. When Fannie was old enough, she played the piano while people sang hymns. She sang, too, and painted pictures. Maybe some of you like to do those things, too.

Maybe Fannie's life sounds a lot like your life, even if she did wear long skirts instead of pants and use kerosene lamps instead of electric lights and cook food on a wood stove instead of in a microwave oven. Going to school and to church, doing homework and chores, making music and playing with friends – these are all things we still do today.

But Fannie's life was different. Very different. Because back then, one hundred fifty years ago in the United States of America, most people didn't believe that everyone was equal. Most people believed that some groups of people were better than other groups. They believed that men were better than women. They believed that Protestants were better than Catholics or Jews. And they believed that people with light skin were better than people with dark skin.

Fannie Barrier had dark skin.

When she was a teenager, she went to the city of Boston to study music. Some of the other students said, “We don't want her here. She's dark, so she doesn't belong. If she stays, we'll all go.” The school asked Fannie to leave.

So, Fannie went to Washington DC to study painting. She had to hide behind a screen so no one could see her. “If the other students know you're here,” the teacher told Fannie, “they'll want you to leave.”

Over and over again, all through her life, Fannie was told she wasn't wanted and couldn't belong, just because she had dark skin.

When she was forty years old and living in the city of Chicago, some women invited her to join a women's club. But some other women in the club said, “We don't want her here. She's dark, so she can't belong. If she stays, we'll all go.” The people in the club argued about it for more than a year. Finally, they voted to let Fannie in. But when she joined, those other women left.

Now, Fannie didn't like that. It hurts when people won't let you belong. It hurts when people don't want you around. Some days Fannie felt angry about it. Some days she felt sad.

But most days, Fannie had no time to feel angry or sad, because she was busy making groups of her own. Fannie knew how much it hurt to be left out. And she knew it would be a lot easier, and more fun, to get things done together with others, than by yourself. She and her husband, the lawyer S. Laing Williams, joined the All Souls Unitarian Church in Chicago. They helped start a hospital, where everyone was welcome, no matter the color of their skin. They created a group to study art and music.

Fannie Barrier Williams helped start a home for girls in Chicago, and she started a center where people could live together, no matter the color of their skin. She was part of the group that started the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP), along with Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells Barnett, Frances Watkins Harper, and W.E.B. DuBois.

Fannie also worked with suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, helping women get the chance to vote. Because back then, remember, people thought that men were better than women. Women couldn't own property or have a bank account or vote in elections.

In 1920, when Fannie was sixty-five years old, women were finally allowed to vote. And about fifty years after that, people starting letting everyone vote and everyone belong to groups, no matter the color of their skin.

Fannie Barrier Williams didn't live to see that. She didn't live long enough to see the United States of America become a place where most of the people believe that everyone is equal.

But she helped make it happen. When some groups kept people out, Fannie Barrier Williams started groups that let everyone in. When the laws of our country said she and thousands of others couldn't belong because of the color of their skin or the church they went to or because they were girls instead of boys, Fannie Barrier Williams worked to change the laws so that everyone could belong – and would belong – no matter what.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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