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.
In 1891 Williams moved to New York where he worked as a public shoe-cleaner. Later he studied law at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia but left before graduating. In 1896 he travelled to England and entered King's College. To help far for his education Williams he lectured for the Church of England Temperance Society and the National Thrift Society. While in London Williams met and married Agnes Powell, a member of the Temperance Society. Her father, Captain Francis Powell, objected to the wedding and refused to meet Williams. Over the next few years the couple had five children.
Williams became increasingly interested in politics and in 1897 established the African Association. The following year he issued a statement calling for a conference "in order to take steps to influence public opinion on existing proceedings and conditions affecting the welfare of the natives in the various parts of the Empire, viz., South Africa, West Africa and the British West Indies". After a meeting with Booker T. Washington Williams decided to increase the scope of the conference by also looking at "the treatment of native races under European and American rule".
The Pan-African Conference was held at Westminster Town Hall in July 1900. There were 37 delegates from Europe, Africa and the United States. Those attending included Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Alcindor, Dadabhai Naoroji, John Archer and William Du Bois. At the conference a large number of delegates made speeches where they called for governments to introduce legislation that would ensure racially equality. Michael Creighton, the Bishop of London, asked the British government to confer the "benefits of self-government" on "other races as soon as possible".
Some of the papers delivered at the conference included: The Trials and Tribulations of the Coloured Race in America (Bishop Alexander Walters), Conditions Favouring a High Standard of African Humanity (C. W. French), The Preservation of Racial Equality (Anna Jones), The Necessary Concord to be Established between Native Races and European Colonists (Benito Sylvain), The Negro Problem in America (Anna Cooper), The Progress of our People (John Quinlan) and Africa, the Sphinx of History (D. E. Tobias).
After the conference the Pan-African Congress wrote to Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, suggesting that black people in the British Empire should be granted "true civil and political rights". Chamberlain replied that black people were "totally unfit for representative institutions". Williams responded to this by writing to Queen Victoria about the system "whereby black men, women, and children were placed in legalized bondage to white colonists". The letter was passed to Chamberlain who replied that the government would not "overlook the interests and welfare of the native races."
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".
Membership of the Pan-African Congress remained small. Williams admitted that in 1901 it only had 50 working members. There were also 150 white sympathizers who were admitted to the organization as honorary members.
Williams was called to the bar in June 1902 and therefore became the first barrister of African descent to practise in Britain. Over the next few years he spent a lot of time defending black people involved in the campaign against racial prejudice in South Africa. He also spent time in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Williams joined the Fabian Society and in November 1906 he and John Archer became the first people of African descent to be elected to public office in Britain. Williams won a seat on Marylebone Borough Council whereas Archer won in Battersea.
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.
(1) Statement issued by the African Association (1897)
To encourage a feeling of unity to facilitate friendly intercourse among Africans in general; to promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent, wholly or in part, in British Colonies and other places, especially in 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.
(2) Objectives of the Pan Congress Congress (July, 1900)
1. To secure to Africans throughout the world true civil and political rights.
2. To meliorate the conditions of our brothers on the continent of Africa, America and other parts of the world.
3. To promote efforts to secure effective legislation and encourage our people in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise.
4. To foster the production of writing and statistics relating to our people everywhere.
5. To raise funds for forwarding these purposes.
(3) Sylvester Williams was interviewed by the Westminster Gazette about the Pan African Congress and the article appeared on 26th July, 1900.
I felt that it was time some effort was made to have us recognised as a people, and so enable us to take our position in the world. We were being legislated for without our sanction - without a voice in the laws that were made to govern us. My idea of bringing about some alteration in this respect was confined in the first place to the British Colonies, but the scheme developed into a Pan-African one. Our object now is to secure throughout the world the same facilities and privileges for the black as the white man enjoys. There is an attempt in the world today to re-enslave the negro race. Especially is this the case in South Africa. We feel that we must bring our whole forces together to prevent that.