The Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911) organized the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. He traveled widely to promote pan-African solidarity.
Henry Sylvester Williams was born of ambitious, lower-middle-class parents in the British colony of Trinidad on Feb. 15, 1869. He attended the Normal School in Port-of-Spain and qualified as a primary school teacher at the age of 17. For the next five years he served as a headmaster. In 1891 he went to the United States, where he worked at odd jobs for two years. This was a time when the gains made by black Americans in the Reconstruction years (1867-1877) were being rapidly lost: blacks were being disfranchised, subjected to a Jim Crow mentality, and virtually reenslaved economically. William's experience in the United States doubtless stimulated his racial consciousness. In 1893 he became a law student at Dalhousie University but did not complete his degree.
In 1896 Williams emigrated to England, settling in London. Here he supported himself as a temperance and thrift lecturer. In 1897 he resumed his study of law at Gray's Inn, passed the bar examination in 1900, and began practice in 1902. In 1898 he married a middle-class English woman, by whom he had several children.
In London Williams's feelings of racial solidarity were further strengthened by meeting blacks from various parts of the world. He learned from Africans of their exploitation and degradation by Europeans. In 1897 he formed the African Association to publicize injustices against African peoples everywhere and to promote their interests.
To do this more dramatically as well as to foster a sense of unity among all African peoples, Williams convened the First Pan-African Conference in London, July 23-25, 1900, with himself as general secretary. It was attended by some 30 delegates from the United States, Liberia, and Ethiopia, among whom were the African Americans Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Williams's chief collaborator) and W. E. B. Du Bois, who was to play a leading role in the five Pan-African Conferences held between 1919 and 1945.
The tone and demands of the conference were moderate. It called for friendly relations between the Caucasian and African races; it appealed to the British government "not [to] overlook the interest and welfare of the native races" in its colonies; and in an address to the "nations of the world," it protested against "denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization." The conference formed the Pan-African Association with Williams as honorary secretary, and it was decided to hold a conference every two years. It was this conference which gave currency to the term pan-Africanism.
After the conference Williams remained virtually the sole organizer of the Pan-African Association. In 1901 he visited Trinidad and Jamaica, where he established branches of the Pan-African Association, and the United States, where he propagandized for the pan-African cause primarily at the annual meeting in Philadelphia of the National Afro-American Council, then the leading African American civil rights organization. Williams returned to London that year and published the Pan-African, a monthly journal which collapsed after a few issues. Williams did not succeed in organizing a second Pan-African Conference, partly because of shortage of funds—perhaps partly, too, because of doubts of black leaders as to the efficacy of such conferences.
In 1903 Williams visited South Africa. He practiced law in Cape Town and played the role of agitator in his quest to promote African interests against minority white domination. He was regarded as dangerous by the ruling South African whites and was probably forced to leave. Back in London in 1905, he became involved in leftist British politics. In 1906 he won a seat on the St. Marylebone Borough Council, becoming probably the first black elected official in Britain.
Between 1905 and 1907 Williams played host and lawyer to individual Africans as well as to African delegations seeking redresses from the British government. In 1908 he visited Liberia; it is very likely that while there he conferred with Edward Blyden, the outstanding pan-African intellectual. Later that year Williams returned via London to his native Trinidad. He practiced law, lectured on Africa, and was actively connected with the Working Men's Association, one of Trinidad's earliest political organizations. Williams died on March 26, 1911.
There are no studies of Williams. Background studies include Colin Legum, Pan-Africanism: A Short Political Guide (1962; rev. ed. 1965), and Joseph L. Anene and Godfrey N. Brown, Africa in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1966).