Working for Higher Education: Advancing Black Women’s Rights in the 1850s

Frances A. Williams

Frances A. Williams was born in Ohio in 1830, just a year after her husband Peter H. Clark.[1,2] Williams attended Oberlin College between 1849-1853, making her the eighth African American person to attend and the second African American woman to graduate from the institution.[3] At Oberlin, Williams took classes with Lucy Stanton. While men were awarded a BA degree, women were only given a diploma upon graduation.[4,5]

In 1854, Williams married Peter H. Clark, a Cincinnati teacher and Black abolitionist. Though Clark was very involved in the Colored Conventions movement, there are no records indicating that Williams joined him in this activism. This did not, however, exclude her from civic participation. She attended to her duties as a wife and mother and also taught in Cincinnati’s Black schools. Her daughter, Ernestine, followed her mother’s career and became a music teacher.[6]

Oberlin-educated women often became teachers, a profession which proved to be significant for Black activism.[7] Teaching allowed Williams to step into the public sphere and utilize her Oberlin education to aid in the fight towards racial equality. Williams raised three children—all of whom were formally educated—before passing away in 1902 in St. Louis, Missouri.[8]


[1] 1860 United States Federal Census. Cincinnati Ward 6, Hamilton, Ohio: Operations, Inc., 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Taylor, Nikki Marie. America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 1880 United States Federal Census. Cincinnati Ward 6, Hamilton, Ohio: Operations, Inc., 2016.

[6] Ronald Shannon. Profiles in Ohio History: A Legacy of African American Achievement. (New York: Universe, 2008), 32.

[7] Taylor, 72.

[8] Ibid., 223.


Written by Reilly Torres, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.

Edited and revised by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.