Henry Sylvester Williams, one of five children, was born in Trinidad on 19th February, 1869. His father was a wheelwright who had originally come from Barbados. A talented student he qualified as a school teacher in 1886. He took a keen interest in politics and in January 1890 helped establish the Trinidad Elementary Teachers Union.
Some time after June 1897 Williams formed what he first called the African Association, and later the Pan African Association. Williams’ good friend, Trinidad attorney Muzumbo Lazare, who at the time was in London taking part in Queen Victoria’s 60th anniversary celebrations as an officer of Trinidad Light Infantry Volunteers also met Kinloch and was appalled at the horrible treatment the Africans were receiving.
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.”
In 1901 Williams travelled the world and managed to set-up branches of the Pan-African Congress in the United States, Jamaica and Trinidad. In October, 1901, Williams established the journal The Pan African. He explained in the first edition that the main objective of the journal was to support the “interests of the African and his descendants in the British Empire”. Williams added that in his opinion “that no other but a Negro can represent the Negro”.
Williams obtained a law degree at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at King’s College London before going on to practice as a barrister in South Africa from 1903 to 1905, the first black man to do so. He practised around the same time as Mahatma Gandhi practiced as a lawyer. On his return to London, he became involved in municipal politics and won a seat on the Marylebone Borough Council in November 1906. He and John Archer became among the first people of African descent to be elected to public office in Britain.
In 1908 Williams decided to return to Trinidad with his family and soon built a successful legal practice in Port of Spain. He continued to work as a lawyer until his death on 26th March, 1911.
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