Born in Brockport, New York in 1855, six years prior to the Civil War, Fannie Barrier was raised in a sheltered environment with loving parents who had never been enslaved. She was the youngest of Anthony and Harriet Barrier’s three children. Anthony Barrier, a barber and then coal merchant, had a large real estate portfolio. At a time when many other Black people across the country were enslaved, the Barriers were relatively wealthy. (Link to map).
According to Mary Jo Deegan, “ She was ascended from at least three generations of free African Americans; was light skinned and aware of her multiple, racial/ethnic heritages; was used to pleasant early social relations with whites; and was educated at local public schools” (Deegan, xv). Her birthplace offered a respite from the ideological turmoil that gripped the nation. Census records showed that no resident of the town had ever owned enslaved people. With roughly 3900 residents of Brockport, only 39 were Black. Could Brockport have been such an accepting community because outspoken abolitionist newspaper editor Seymour Dexter and Jermain Loguen, the Underground Railroad conductor lived closed by to Rockport influenced the community?
Although white citizens overwhelmingly outnumbered Blacks, she never felt out of place, threatened, or intimidated (Hendricks,10). Her family worked closely and respectfully with the white residents in business, religion, and friendship. Their privileged social, religious, and educational lives were immersed in full integration of the Black and white races. Her mixed-race heritage contributed to her family’s considerable high economic stature in the community. Barrier and her family may not have faced a large amount of racial discrimination because her grandparents and parents were born free, which naturally allowed them to be integrated in society by the time Fannie was born. (Cebrzynski,1)
The Barriers were a religious family who belonged and were active in a large all white Baptist church in their village where racial discrimination was nonexistent. Theirs was the only African American family in the congregation. Anthony Barrier was a clerk, trustee, treasurer, and deacon of the church and Harriet Barrier led a women’s Bible Class (Western NY Suffragists Winning the Vote, N.P.). Williams described her childhood in her autobiography as, “we lived in blissful ignorance of the fact that we were practicing the unpardonable sin of ‘social equality.’ Indeed, until I became a young woman and went south to teach, I had never been reminded that I belonged to an ‘inferior race’” (Williams, 6).
Oratory and writing skills were provided at all levels of Barrier’s public-school education. Wanda A. Hendricks called Barrier’s academic provisions as having a literary culture at the school as well, that most likely played a significant role in Barrier’s subsequent engagement in literary clubs, her voracious appetite for reading, and her pursuit of a professional career as a journalist and writer (Hendricks, 24).
Girls who attended Brockport Collegiate Institute, as did Barrier, were met with the opportunity to pursue what was thought to be an esteemed profession in teaching. She matriculated next to the new Normal and Training School (later to become State University of New York -SUNY) where at the age of sixteen, she was the first African American student to graduate. She did so with not only demanding academic accomplishments but attained skills in music and art as well. The liberal arts building at SUNY Brockport is today named for Fannie Barrier Williams.