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Liberal Arts Building renamed after Brockport trailblazer

Photo credit: Liz Blair

On Oct. 6, the Liberal Arts Building (L.A.B) was renamed after Fannie Barrier Williams, the first African American student to graduate from SUNY Brockport. She went on to become a great part of the nation’s history. 

“She graduated from what was then called the Brockport Normal and Training School back in 1870,” Mike Andriatch, Vice President for Advancement and Communications as well as the President of the Brockport Foundation, said. “She was only 15 years old at the time.” 

Not only was Barrier Williams the first African American graduate of the Brockport Normal school, but she was recognized throughout our country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a major national leader. 

“She was a respected public speaker, prolific writer, prominent reform and labor activist and a recognized intellectual. Her achievements were all the more remarkable because she was a Black woman living at a time known as the nadir of race relations,” Andriatch said. 

The nadir of race relations was a time in our country when racism against Black Americans was more pronounced than it had ever been. 

The original opening of the L.A.B was in 2014, and there was always hope to give it a new name. But why is Brockport choosing this woman out of everyone else who has come through the school or has donated large grant? Andriatch said usually this big of a naming would be supported by a substantial private gift to the college, but since Williams died almost 80 years ago, that wasn’t possible. 

“We see this as an intentional corrective to the gendered and racialized practice of naming buildings after ‘great men,’” SUNY Brockport President Heidi Macpherson said. “At a time when many campuses are faced with the prospective of renaming buildings named after historical figures whose racist ideologies and/or ties to slavery have come to light, Brockport is looking to its history to lift up the individuals who never got enough credit for their fight for racial and gender equality. Fannie Barrier Williams helped lead this fight right after the Civil War and up through the Suffragist Movement in the late 19th and early 20th century.” 

The renaming will spark a big difference for students who spend most of their time in the L.A.B. SUNY Brockport senior Ellie Sirico is excited for this change. 

“I think that it’s great to see that Brockport is recognizing such a powerful woman from our history. And the fact that she is a woman of color is even better,” Sirico said. 

Barrier Williams is not only being recognized by Brockport in the renaming, a program and scholarship funded by ESL has been recently named in her honor as well. 

“ESL made a $1,107,000 commitment to ’closing the gap’ scholarships for students at SUNY Brockport (the first cohort began this fall) and named the program after Fannie Barrier Williams,” Andriatch said. “The program will recruit strong students with financial need who might not otherwise be eligible for other Brockport scholarships. Approximately 30 students per year will receive these awards, which will supplement existing state and federal programs and cover traditional out-of-pocket expenses such as room-and-board and fees. The program is intended to support a student’s ability to persist to graduation by providing financial, academic, personal and career support.” 

SUNY Brockport will forever honor a piece of history through their newest building, allowing Fannie Barrier Williams to leave an endless legacy for students to admire. 

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