(1869 – 1911)
Organiser of the world’s first ever pan-African conference in 1906
Organising the first Pan African conference was a unique achievement for which Williams is given little credit today. When he formed the African Association, as it was first called, one of its aims was to:
“promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent, wholly or in part, in British colonies and other places especially Africa, by circulating accurate information on all subjects affecting their rights and privileges as subjects of the British Empire, by direct appeals to the Imperial and local Governments.”
Williams was born on 19th February 1869, in the village of Arouca, ten miles east of Port of Spain, and the eldest of five children. An intelligent young man, he qualified as a teacher at the age of 17, and was put in charge of a school a year later. He left for New York when he was 22, because teachers in Trinidad were paid poorly. After two years in the US, he enrolled in Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia to study law. Three years later he came to London, enrolling in King’s College. He and three other Trinidadian lawyers read for the bar at Gray’s Inn. Here he fell in love with Agnes Powell, daughter of a Royal Marines officer who fiercely opposed the match. They were married in 1898, and had a son, Henry Francis, a year later.
Williams lectured extensively on Trinidad and consistently denounced crown colony rule as ‘a heartless system…a synonym for racial contempt’. He led a deputation of Trinidadians to meet MPs, and became the first person of African descent to speak in the House of Commons. He was also instrumental in the creation of the African Association, to promote and protect the interests of all subjects of African descent. He had always had the idea of a world conference of black people, ‘the first occasion upon which black men would assemble in England to speak for themselves and endeavour to influence public opinion in their favour’.
The sessions of the conference were held in Westminster Town Hall on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th July 1900. There were 37 delegates and 10 other participants and observers. The chair was taken by Bishop Alexander Walters, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the United States and president of National Afro-American Council. The vice chairmen were representatives of independent African states: Frederick Johnson, former Attorney-General of Liberia, and the Haitian Benito Sylvain, aide-de-camp to the Ethiopian emperor.
The conference discussed many issues, among them the importance of preserving the identity of the black race, attacking colonialism, the need for the colonial powers to recognise the rights of indigenous people. There should be no human power to halt Africans’ social and political development.
The African Association renamed the Pan African Association. The conference was reported in the leading London newspapers. The Westminster Gazette observed that it ‘marks the initiation of a remarkable movement on history; the negro is at last awake to the potentialities of his future’.
After the conference Williams went to Jamaica, Trinidad and the United States to set up branches of the Pan African Association. He also launched a journal called The Pan African in 1901. It was designed to spread information ‘concerning the African and his descendants in the British Empire’ and to be ‘the mouthpiece of the millions of Africans and their descendants’.
Unfortunately, the Pan African Association was short lived, due mainly in part to Williams not being able to devote all his time to the organization. He was probably the first black man to practice as a barrister, and worked extensively in South Africa, defending black people in the courts. In 1906, he was elected to public office on Marylebone borough council. He was denounced by the British consul in 1908 after going to Liberia and decided to move back to Trinidad. He was in the process of building a successful law practice there when he fell ill toward the end of 1910. In March 1911 he died in hospital.
Read more about Henry Sylvester Williams