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Progenitor of Pan-Africanism Movement:Henry Sylvester Williams

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  • Progenitor of Pan-Africanism Movement:Henry Sylvester Williams

    Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams is credited with convening the 1st Pan African Conference in London in 1900. Williams left Trinidad in 1893 intending to attend law school in Canada. Though financial difficulties thwarted this goal, Williams lived and interacted with African-Americans in both Canada and the United States. He eventually immigrated to England where he studied law at Gray's Inn, one of the four "Inns of Court" in which barristers were trained. Mathurin traced Williams' entry into political activism to his interaction with Ms. E. V. Kinloch, a Black South African woman very critical and vocal about colonial oppression in her homeland. Williams established the African Association in 1897, collaborating with Ms. Kinloch and Joseph Mason of Antigua (Contee, 1973.). Their initial efforts were reformist, and involved the use of conventional lobbying methods, including public speeches on African oppression and development issues, news editorials; and attempts to influence colonial officials and parliament as it related to the mistreatment and exploitation of black subjects within the British empire. Discussing their organization goals in one interview, Williams stated that the Association's primary goal was "to secure throughout the world the same facilities and privileges for the black man as the white man enjoys." (Contee, 1973, p. 17) Williams traveled throughout the British Isles to gain support from white liberals, African workers and students. Eventually, they became involved in efforts to abolish racial inequality and economic exploitation of all African populations, whether on the continent of Africa or in the diaspora.

    In 1898, the Association published and circulated a pamphlet calling for a conference to address the declining political status of blacks globally; the Black press picked it up. Favorable response from African and diaspora journalists and activists led to the planning of the Pan-African Conference and the organizations was renamed the Pan-African Association (PAA.) As the Association's secretary, Williams handled most of the correspondence, fundraising and publicity for the conference. Williams also consulted well-known and experienced political activists including African-American nationalist, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and Booker T. Washington. The PAA's conference was strategically timed to take advantage of the fact that more Africans would be in Europe to attend two well-advertised and important events: The Paris Exposition and the World's Christian Endeavor Convention. African representation was small, but the conference was international in tone. Approximately 35 delegates came from Liberia, Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leona, United States and Canada. The West Indies was represented well, with participants from Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Trinidad. Delegates includes Dr. Moses DaRocha, a Nigerian of Brazilian descent; Benito Sylvain of Haiti and W.E.B. DuBois, noted United States scholar-activist and editor of the Crisis. There were also a vacillating number of observers, both Londoners and tourists.

    In order to increase their membership for their efforts to impact colonial policy toward African peoples, Williams went on a speaking tour and established chapters of the Pan-African Association (PAA) in Trinidad and Jamaica. His counterparts in the United States, DuBois and Bishop Alexander Walters, attempted to develop an international administrative structure to support ongoing work and conferences for the PAA. Internal dissension, however, led to financial problems and factionalization. Williams, assisted by Walters, attempted to rejuvenate the organization, but the PAA disbanded in 1902.

    In 1903, Williams migrated again, this time to southern Africa, becoming one of the first black lawyers in the South African colony. Interestingly, he was there during the same period in which Mohandas Gandhi practiced law there. His tenure there was short because of the intense discrimination that limited his law practice. He returned to England and became involved with the Progressive and Labour party in London. He was elected to public office where he served for approximately two years. He also represented the Liberian government in several legal and political issues in England. In 1908, he visited Liberia at the invitation of the President and supported global black participation in Liberia's development. He also visited Guinea and Sierra Leone. Eventually he returned to Trinidad where he continued to practice law and participated in political and literary debates until his death in 1911.


    By Ramla Bandele, Article Author