Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Harvest the Power, 2nd Edition: A Lay Leadership Development Program for Adults

Story: Fannie Barrier Williams

For Workshop 5, Integrity, Activity 1, Fannie Barrier Williams

By Gail Forsyth-Vail with Jamaine Cripe. Sources include “Fannie Barrier Williams” by June Edwards, in Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism, edited by Mark Morrison-Reid (Skinner House, 2011); “A Northern Negro’s Autobiography” by Fannie Barrier Williams, The Independent, Vol. 57, July 14, 1904; and Fannie Barrier Williams (1855–1944), contributed by Candace Staten to, March 31, 2014.

What can religion further do to advance the condition of the colored people? More religion and less church…. Less theology and more of human brotherhood (sic), less declamation and more common sense and love for truth.
—Fannie Barrier Williams, 1893

Fannie Barrier was furious. She was embarrassed and hurt and disgusted. She had discovered that no matter how talented, educated, and polite she was, her race made her a second-class citizen. In Washington, D.C., where she was a teacher, she had decided to take a painting class. But she discovered that her art instructor had erected screens to separate her from the white students in the class. Thinking that things would be better in the North, she enrolled in a music school in Boston. The principal there told her that she had to leave the school because some white students were threatening to quit if they had to go to school with a Black person.

Fannie Barrier had a lot of gifts. She was a talented painter and pianist, a good student, and a good friend. She had grown up in Brockport, New York, a mostly white town outside of Rochester, during and after the Civil War, where she felt accepted as a social equal. It was only when she set out to do something “large or out of the ordinary” in her life that she smacked right up against a system that said she was of less value than white people. But it was also when she bumped up against this system that she found her greatest gifts and then used them to help people whose lives were more difficult than her own.

Fannie Barrier met and married Samuel Williams, a young lawyer. They moved to Chicago, where they lived on the South Side, a predominantly Black part of town. She made friends with many people, Black and white, who were interested in the arts, music, and discussions about all sorts of interesting things. She also worked hard to help those in her community, especially the Black women who, because of prejudice, were unable to find jobs to help support their families.

Because she had so many white friends, she decided to try to persuade some of them to offer jobs to skilled Black women. She soon discovered that just because a white person was kind to her as an individual did not mean that they would give Black women a chance to prove themselves as workers. One manager, when Williams asked him to hire Black women, went on and on about how his parents raised him to believe that slavery was wrong. But when she pressed him to offer Black women jobs, he said no, it would be too disruptive to his business. When she reminded him that his Christian faith called him to do better, he disagreed.

During her years in Chicago, Fannie Barrier Williams met and became friendly with Jenkin Lloyd Jones, minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls. She joined the church and was active in the establishment of the Abraham Lincoln Centre, As the City of Chicago prepared to host the 1893 World’s Fair, Williams’ minister organized a World’s Parliament of Religions. This would be a gathering where people from all over the world could learn about one another’s religions. Fannie Barrier Williams discovered that there were no women of color on the planning team, and she pushed hard to fix that. Eventually she was invited not only to be part of the organizing team, but also to speak at the gathering. In her moving speech, “Religious Duty to the Negro,” she demanded that churches do a better job of practicing what they preached when it came to justice for Black people. Because of this powerful speech, Fannie Barrier Williams became famous. Soon, she was invited to deliver her message everywhere. She became a paid speaker, sometimes pairing her speeches with a piano concert.

Fannie Barrier Williams, whose gifts and talents were many and who was herself financially comfortable, never forgot the Black women whose paths were even more difficult than hers. All her life, she fought the racism that kept Black people from the jobs and education they needed to survive so they could offer their own talents to the world. We honor her memory and her place among our UU ancestors.