Fannie C. Williams, 1882-1980, was the principal at Valena C. Jones Elementary and Normal Schools in New Orleans, Louisiana from about 1921-1954. Williams was a pioneer in African American education and public schools in the South and she served on many boards for a variety of local organizations, as well as participated in conferences hosted by three American presidents. Williams was widely respected as a principal and was devoted to professional development, which motivated her students and teachers to pursue higher education and higher-level positions in the school systems across the country.
Fannie C. Williams was born in Biloxi, Mississippi on March 23, 1882, as one in a family with seven children. Williams first came to New Orleans to attend high school and later graduated from the College Preparatory and Normal Departments of Straight College (now Dillard University) in 1904. Williams began her career along the gulf coast in Mississippi between 1904 and 1908, but she soon moved back to New Orleans where she spent the majority of her life committed to education. Shortly after her return to New Orleans she started teaching at Fisk Elementary School. Due to her outstanding work at Fisk, Hattie V. Feger, the principal at Miro School requested Williams transfer to teach at her school in 1912.
In the fall of 1917, Williams became the interim principal of Miro School while Hattie Feger was on leave, studying at the University of Cincinnati. It was during this period that the name of the school changed from Miro School to the Valena C. Jones School. The next year, Williams decided to return to university to further her education and between 1918 and 1920, Williams attended Michigan State Normal School (later named Eastern Michigan University) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She graduated in 1920 with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Pedagogy. Williams returned to New Orleans and became the principal of Valena C. Jones Elementary School in April of 1921. Between 1931 and 1939, while working as the principal of the elementary school, she also held a simultaneous appointment as the principal of the Valena C. Jones Normal School, which was located in the same building as the elementary school. At the time, the normal school certified African American teachers for work in the New Orleans Public Schools. In 1939 Williams left her position as the principal of the normal school, when the state discontinued the certification program and started requiring a four-year college degree for teacher certification.
Overall, Williams was a pioneer in the field of African American education in the South as she worked for holistic development of children, which included mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. For instance, at the Valena C. Jones School, she started a health program in 1929 that culminated in the creation and celebration of Child Health Day on May 1st. This program celebrated the health activities of students during the year. The students of her school were also encouraged to be involved in the community. Williams organized students to bring baskets of flowers to the sick and elderly. She also motivated healthy eating habits for her students. The children were encouraged to drink milk, eat hot lunches, and not drink soft drinks at school. Furthermore, she motivated two dentists in the community to render their services free of charge to students of the school. Additionally, in the early 1930s, Williams opened a nursery school and kindergarten at the school. This preschool was the first of its kind for African Americans in New Orleans. Moreover, Williams promoted quality testing for her students to measure success long before the New Orleans School Board started requiring testing. Williams initiated the "Parents Study Group" in the 1940s with the aid of Family Services to test her pupils with the assistance of experts. Williams also included travel experiences for students, with trips to Tuskegee, Baton Rouge, the Gulf Coast, as well as to Audubon Park in New Orleans. She was also instrumental, along with others, in getting African American girls of New Orleans into Scouting. Troop 99 of the Valena C. Jones School was the first African American troop in the city.
As well as being committed to her students, Williams encouraged professional growth and instilled in her teaching the importance of excelling and accomplishing goals. This motivated many of the school's teachers to pursue higher education and administrative positions as principals across the country. Nine of the Valena C. Jones School's teachers became principals of New Orleans schools, one became a supervisor, one became a consultant, two went into sight saving, one specialized in speech, and another became a teacher of convalescent children at Charity Hospital. Of particular note, one teacher moved to Oakland, California and became the first African American principal of a senior high school.
Along with education, Williams was committed to community development. She was an organizer, charter member, and first president of the Board of Management of the African American Branch of the New Orleans YWCA. Additionally, Williams served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Orleans Neighborhood Center; the Family Service Society; the Girl Scouts; the American Red Cross; Community Chest, a child development center; and Flint-Goodridge Hospital. She was also a member of the advisory committee for the Department of Public Welfare. Williams was a member of the Central Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ in New Orleans for over 50 years. Within the church, she served for many years as superintendent of the church school, president, as well as a life deaconess.
After Williams retired from Valena C. Jones Elementary School in 1954, she continued to work in education and community development. In particular, she was a private tutor of disabled children, illiterate adults, and Hispanics learning to read English. She also volunteered in an adult education program sponsored by the Council of Jewish Women. Additionally, Williams traveled widely in the United States, Mexico, and Europe throughout her life.
Throughout her career, Williams received honors for her commitment to African American education. In response to her great efforts, many distinguished persons, usually visitors to New Orleans, accepted invitations to visit the Valena C. Jones School, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. Additionally, Dillard University honored her by opening Fannie C. Williams Hall in 1946 and in 1950, there was a public testimonial honoring Williams that was held during the American Education Week Observance in New Orleans. She also received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Dillard Alumni Association in 1961. In 1977, she was the recipient of the Past President's Award from the American Teacher's Association and the National Education Association.
Williams died in New Orleans on June 12, 1980 at the age of 98.
The Fannie C. Williams papers, located at the Amistad Research Center, reflect her career and life commitment to African American education and work with young people in New Orleans, most notably between 1908 and 1954, when she served as a teacher and principal in the New Orleans public school system. Overall, the collection is a valuable resource for the topics of African American education, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in New Orleans, as well as youth and community development. The photographs from the Claiborne Branch of the YWCA illustrate various youth, young adult, and adult education and entertainment activities. The finding aid for the collection can be found here.
Images from the Fannie C. Williams papers. Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.