Sylvanie F. Williams


Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists
Biography of Sylvanie F. Williams, 1848-1921


By Maureen Elgersman Lee, Hampton University

Sylvanie Francoz was born in Louisiana (possibly in New Iberia) around 1848. Little is known about her early life, but by the time the 1870 census was taken she was living in New Orleans, the 22-year-old wife of school teacher Arthur P. Williams, and mother of 10-month-old Arthur Clement. New Orleans served as Williams’s permanent home, and the base from which she would leave her mark as a writer, activist, and educator.

Williams is known for her optimistic preface to the 1895 poetry collection, Violets and Other Tales, written by Alice Ruth Moore (later Alice Dunbar-Nelson). Williams implored the reader to recognize the merit of the young writer’s work for its energetic and seminal—rather than seasoned—qualities. Other work by Sylvanie F. Williams included an essay entitled “The Social Status of the Negro Woman,” published in the inaugural volume of The Voice of the Negro and her address, “A Mother’s Duty in the Home,” delivered at the 1896 Congress of Women in Atlanta.

Sylvanie F. Williams earned a national reputation as founder and president of New Orleans’s highly regarded Phyllis Wheatley Club. Founded in New Orleans no later than 1895, the Phyllis Wheatley club offered membership to women of intelligence and respectability interested in service, suffrage, temperance, and social purity. As Club president, Williams was a vital part of the Black Women’s Club Movement and also conferred with members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Wheatley Club members also established the Phyllis Wheatley Sanitarium and Training School for Negro Nurses, a forerunner of the Flint-Goodridge Hospital that served Blacks in New Orleans for nearly a century.

Locally, Sylvanie F. Williams was also known as a valued public school administrator who provided leadership and reform to various city schools including Thomy Lafon Public School, Dryades School, and Fisk School for Girls. Williams’s husband, Arthur P. Williams, was a gifted musician, teacher, and educational leader in his own right, who served the New Orleans public school system for decades.

Sylvanie F. Williams died in New Orleans, on August 12, 1921, just two months after her retirement. She was preceded in death by her husband who had died the previous year. Born in the 19th century, Williams’s legacy has extended well into the 21st century, through the former Sylvanie F. Williams Elementary School, the current Sylvanie Wiliams College Prep Elementary School, and Flint-Goodridge Hospital.


Jan Doherty, “Louisiana Black Women: An Ignored History,” University of New Orleans, student paper, 1985-1986, accessed at; Sylvanie Francoz Williams, “The Social Status of the Negro Woman,” Voice of the Negro 1, no 7 (1904); Deborah Gray White, Telling Histories: Black Women Histories in the Ivory Tower (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Woman’s Era 2, nos. 7, 9, 12, accessible at; Nicolle Muller Dunnaway, “Flowers in Their Beauty: The Phyllis Wheatley Club of New Orleans,” (M.A. Thesis, Southern Louisiana University, Department of History and Political Science, 2011), abstract accessible at; Alice Ruth Moore, Violets and Other Tales, 1895 “The History of Flint-Goodridge Hospital at Dillard University,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 61, no 6 (November 1969); Monroe N. Work, ed., Negro Year Book, 1921-22 (New Year Book Company, 1922); Al Kennedy, Chord Changes on the Chalkboard: How Public School Teachers Shaped Jazz and the Music of New Orleans (Scarecrow Press, 2005).  


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