Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787

By Hakim Adi; Marika Sherwood | Go to book overview

Henry Sylvester Williams

(1869-1911)

Henry Sylvester Williams convened the first Pan-African Conference in July 1900 in London. It was the first international gathering of people of African origins and descent and established the phrase and the notion of Pan-Africanism.

Williams was the first son of immigrant parents from Barbados settled in Trinidad. His father Henry was a wheelwright, and thus as a tradesman one of the 'respectable' lower middle class. But as a Black man Williams would have lived a segregated life in the British colony which was completely under British and local planter domination. Young Henry attended the Arouca government primary school and qualified as a teacher at Tranquillity Normal School. This meant little more than having his elementary school certificate and minimal additional training in the 'basics'.

Williams taught in country schools around Trinidad until 1890 when he left for the USA to gain qualifications unobtainable in Trinidad, where even high school education was the preserve of the rich. How he got to the USA (it would have been impossible to save the passage money from his meagre wages) is unknown. Equally unknown are his places of sojourn and activities in North America. The only concrete information is that he studied law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia for the academic year 1893-4. At that time there were no entrance qualifications for Dalhousie. We have to surmise that he participated in some of the many political meetings taking place at this time in the USA - meetings to protest lynchings, to advocate unity and various forms of action in the face of the retrenchment of the promises of Reconstruction.

Arriving in London in 1896, Williams enrolled at King's College as an evening student taking Latin. The following year he was admitted to Gray's Inn to prepare for legal qualifications. As the entrance examinations for Gray's Inn included Latin, again we have to surmise that he might have taken some college courses which included Latin while in the USA.

Williams earned his living as an official lecturer for the Temperance Society. In 1898 he married Agnes, daughter of Capt. Francis Powell of Gillingham, Kent, despite the captain's objections to his colour. The couple were to have five children.

Williams lectured on colonial issues on many platforms around Britain and in Ireland. He was, for example, one of the hundred or so lecturers speaking at the series on 'Empire' sponsored by the South Place Ethical Society in 1895-8. There he criticised Britain's administration of Trinidad and asked for representative government, free and compulsory education and higher wages. In 1899 he succeeded

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