Henry Sylvester Williams

Henry Sylvester Williams

Sylvester Williams, Trinidadian Pan-Africanist and lawyer was the first to organise an association and conferences looking at pan African issues. He inspired W.E.B De Bois who is now considered the founding father of the Pan African movement. His vision to bring people of African descent closer together, and establish a movement for rights and privileges is a legacy that lasts today.

Sylvester Williams, was born in Arouca, Trinidad, in 1869. He lived with his father was a wheelwright who had come from Barbados, mother and four brothers and sisters. He excelled in his studies and went on to qualify as a school teacher in 1886, whilst still a teenager. His interest in politics had started, and in January 1890 was involved in the formation of the Trinidad Elementary Teachers Union.

He moved to New York in 1891, where he undertook several menial jobs including a shoe shiner. He went onto study law at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, however he left before graduating. By 1896 he was on his way to England where it is thought he studied at King’s College.

During 1897 he enrolled as a student of Gray’s Inn to read for the bar, passing a preliminary examination in Latin, English and History.(check) To earn a living Williams started lecturing and travelling the country for the Church of England Temperance Society, and the National Thrift Society.

That same year Williams established the African Association. He was establishing himself as a leading figure in the black movement, having meetings with academics, politicians, and other figures including Booker T. Washington. He corresponded with editors of newspapers and journals regarding Pan-African issues. It was these activities which led to him forming the Pan-African Conference a few years later.

During his time in London Williams fell in love with a white Englishwoman, Agnes Powell. She was a member of the Temperance Society, and her father was Captain Francis Powell, who strongly objected to their union and refused to give his consent to marry. She ignored her father’s objections, and went on to marry Williams in 1898, they went on to have five children.

By 1900, he had successfully organised the first Pan-African Conference held at the Westminster Town Hall. It was a three-day conference, with 37 delegates including Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Alcindor, Dadabhai Naoroji, John Archer and W.E.B Du Bois.

After the initial success of the conference, Williams left England in 1901, to set up new branches of the Pan-African Congress. He travelled to the United States, Jamaica and Trinidad. Pan-African Congress were still small in number, with an estimated 50 working members, in addition to around 150 white supporters.

Back in London he finished his exams and was called to the bar in June 1902, making him the first barrister of African descent to practise in Britain. The following year he travelled to South Africa where he practised law from 1903 to 1905, defending black cases. He also spent time in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Back in London again in 1906, Williams joined the Fabian Society, and became involved in local politics and was elected to public office with a seat on the Marylebone Borough Council. He remained in England for a further two years, before returning to Trinidad in 1908.

He returned to Trinidad in 1908 where he set up a successful legal practice in Port of Spain, where he worked until he died on 26th March, 1911.