As a middle-class African American in New Orleans during Reconstruction, Sylvanie Francoz Williams witnessed the struggles that black people faced in fighting for their rights and livelihoods. She especially empathized with African American women and worked to support them.

Williams was a graduate of the Peabody Normal School, an academy dedicated to preparing African Americans to teach in public schools, and she later served as the Peabody’s principal and only teacher. In 1896 Williams became the first principal of the Thomy Lafon School, continuing in that role until 1921, when she retired shortly before her death. She faced tremendous adversity when the school was destroyed by fire during a race riot in 1900, but under her leadership, the school was rebuilt six years later in a different location.

As founder and president of the local Phillis Wheatley Club, which was affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), she steered the club’s 1896 opening of a nursing school for young black women, which included a free medical clinic. In 1901, the club established a kindergarten and day care program for working women. At a time when black women were being excluded from the larger suffrage movement, Williams and the Phillis Wheatley Club advocated for African American women’s right to vote.

An active member of the NACW, Williams served as an officer of the organization and fought unsuccessfully for its inclusion in the National Council of Women. In 1915 she led a campaign that funded the first public playground for African American children in New Orleans. Following her death, her legacy of public service was commemorated by the naming of a community service organization, a swimming pool, and an elementary school in her honor.


Book page featuring early activists for African American women’s rights

from Progress of a Race

by J. W. Gibson

Naperville, IL: J. L. Nichols, 1920

The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of an anonymous donor, 2016.0087


Sylvanie Williams is pictured at center, though incorrectly listed as appearing at bottom left.

Sylvanie F. Williams (center, dressed in all white) with the faculty of the Thomy Lafon School

before 1913; photograph

courtesy of the Louisiana and Special Collections Department, University of New Orleans

Invitation to dedication of Sylvanie F. Williams Elementary School


courtesy of the Louisiana and Special Collections Department, University of New Orleans

Thomy Lafon School, 2916 South Robertson Street

negative, ca. 1932; gelatin silver print, between 1979 and 1983

by Charles L. Franck Photographers, photographer;

Nancy Ewing Miner, photographic printer

The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic

New Orleans Collection, 1979.325.1852