Fannie Barrier Williams Project

a public history inquiry into the life, times & lasting legacies of the brockport resident, brockport state normal school graduate, educator, artist, musician, antiracist activist & women’s rights advocate.

Fannie Barrier Williams, ca. 1880.

What is it?

The Fannie Barrier Williams Project at the Brockport campus of the State University of New York (SUNY) explores the life, times, and lasting historical significance of Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944), Brockport resident, graduate of the Brockport State Normal School (precursor to SUNY Brockport), antiracist and women’s rights activist, advocate for working-class African-American women, educator, writer, thinker, musician, visual artist, and crucial but underappreciated American figure. Check out the Fannie Barrier Williams Project website (in development). Or read below for more information.

Who was Fannie Barrier Williams?

Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was born in Brockport, New York. She was the first known person of African American descent to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School, the precursor to SUNY Brockport, doing so in 1870. She went on to study piano at the New England Conservatory, taught in a segregated school in Hannibal, Missouri, studied portraiture and painting in Washington DC, studied German and other non-English languages, and eventually settled in Chicago, Illinois with her husband Samuel Laing Williams, who went on to a successful law career. In Chicago, she was active in advocating for Black equal rights and the rights of women, serving on the lllinois Woman’s Alliance (IWA) and becoming the first African American woman to be admitted to the Chicago Woman’s Club. She insisted on Black participation in the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 and gave a number of crucial speeches at the event itself. After many years of activism and leadership in Chicago, she returned to Brockport in 1926 and lived in the town for the last decades of her life.   

How will the project work?

Through coursework and extracurricular opportunities, students will be able to study the life, times, and lasting legacies of Fannie Barrier Williams, for whom the Liberal Arts Building at SUNY Brockport is now named. Faculty will be able, if they wish, to connect their research and teaching interests to the FBW Project. Public history partnerships can emerge as well. We pursue a broad approach to historical inquiry that includes everything from close readings of primary source documents to engagements with historiographic and interpretive debates to contemporary issues of social justice, equality, and liberty in the United States and the world.

In academic year 2023-2024, Dr. Michael J. Kramer of the SUNY Brockport Department of History will teach HST 412/512 Introduction to Public History (Fall 2023) and HST/AAS/WGS 381 Fannie Barrier Williams Project (Spring 2024) to begin to provide curricular paths for students to study Fannie Barrier Williams, her historical context, and her continued significance. These courses include traditional historical inquiry as well as cross-departmental collaborations with the Departments of Art, Social Work, African and African American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Journalism and Broadcasting, the Museum Studies and Public History Minor, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Drake Memorial Library, and other campus units. Support for course development has been provided by a Mellon Foundation Digital Ethnic Futures Teaching Consortium Fellowship.

Through coursework, students will help to create a set of curated displays (for instance, a timeline display in collaboration with Graphic Design and Illustration classes in the Department of Art). They will explore applied and professional dimensions of Fannie Barrier Williams’ advocacy work (in collaboration with the Department of Social Work). And they will contribute to a digital website that chronicles and archives our investigations and shares them with broader public audiences.

Dr. Kramer will also serve as a 2023-2024 Faculty Diversity Fellow at the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (OEDI) to coordinate further support for other faculty and staff to pursue projects related to the life, times, and legacies of Fannie Barrier Williams and to develop partnerships with local, state, and national institutions. A HNY (Humanities New York) Vision Grant is in development as well to explore ways of expanding campus-community collaborations.

What do students learn?

Students acquire:

  • Historical knowledge
  • Civic knowledge
  • Research skills
  • Communication skills
  • Information and digital literacy
  • Interdisciplinary approaches across different departments, programs, and units of study at Brockport
  • A portfolio and resume builder for a wide range of career opportunities
  • Campus community of scholarship, research, and learning
  • A chance to be part of an important project at SUNY Brockport

Cross-campus & public outreach efforts

Cross-campus collaboration with the Departments of African and African American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, Art, Journalism and Broadcasting, and Social Work, as well as other programs, are in development. The FBW Project also will work with Drake Memorial Library, the Information Technology offices, the President’s Office, the Provost’s Office, the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Joey Jackson Intercultural Center, the Communications Office, the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholars Program, and the Honors College to make possible more robust, multidisciplinary, and multifaceted explorations. As an example, a Mellon Foundation Digital Ethnic Futures Consortium Capacity Building Grant, if received, will support a set of hybrid online/in-person workshops for students that help them improve digital, research, citation, and information literacy skills. These will aid the FBW Project and live on after it for use on campus.

We also plan to explore partnerships with other area universities such as RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) and its Public History program and SUNY Geneseo’s Center for Local and Municipal History. We are also working with local organizations such as the Emily Knapp Museum, the Morgan Manning House, the Brockport Community Museum, Seymour Public Library, the Brockport School District, the Town of Brockport, and local businesses. Additionally, we seek to connect with regional and statewide organizations such as the Monroe County Historians Office, Humanities New York (HNY), the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS), Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives Foundation, the Susan B. Anthony House, the Rochester Labor Council, the New York State Museum, the State Historians’ Office, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), and the New York State Education Department (NYSED), among other potential partners.

After 2023-2024, we hope to build on our first year of work to continue to study Fannie Barrier Williams and consider how her life and times can serve as a springboard for further study, understanding, activism, and civic engagement on and beyond campus.                                  

Selected bibliography (in progress)

Primary sources

  • Williams, Fannie Barrier. The New Woman of Color: The Collected Writings of Fannie Barrier Williams, 1893–1918. Edited and with an Introduction by Mary Jo Deegan. DeKalb, Ill: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Secondary scholarly sources

  • Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
  • Hendricks, Wanda A. Fannie Barrier Williams: Crossing the Borders of Region and Race. 1st edition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Other sources


Visit the Fannie Barrier Williams Project website.

Project director & contact

Dr. Michael J. Kramer, Associate Professor, History Department/Director, Museum Studies and Public History Minor, State University of New York (SUNY) Brockport,