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Frances E. Williams Papers, 1965-1995
MSS 086  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Separated Material
  • Related Material at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research
  • Bibliography

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Frances E. Williams Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1965-1995
    Collection number: MSS 086
    Creator: Frances. E. Williams
    Extent: 13 boxes 4 1/3 linear feet
    Repository: Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research
    Los Angeles, CA 90044
    Abstract: The collection contains Frances E. Williams' personal papers from 1965 to 1995 relating to her professional career as an actress, personal/cultural interests, community involvements, and to a larger extent her political activism. The bulk of the material covers the years between 1975 and 1986 when Williams was active in the anti-apartheid and communist solidarity movements taking place in the greater Los Angeles area. The collection also includes materials pertaining to the Frances E. Williams Corner Theater, her most personal project in which she converted her garage in South Los Angeles into a theater where young actors, writers, and artists from the neighborhood would come together to practice their crafts.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The collection is available for research only at the Library's facility in Los Angeles. The Library is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Researchers are encouraged to call or email the Library indicating the nature of their research query prior to making a visit.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research. Researchers may make single copies of any portion of the collection, but publication from the collection will be allowed only with the express written permission of the Library's director. It is not necessary to obtain written permission to quote from a collection. When the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research gives permission for publication, it is as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Frances E. Williams Papers, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Los Angeles, California.


    The collection was donated to the Library by the estate of Frances E. Williams following her death in 1995.


    Frances Elizabeth Williams (b. June 17, 1905; d. January 2, 1995)
    Frances E. Williams was a notable African-American actress and activist in Los Angeles from the early 1940s until her death in 1995. As an actress, she was a pivotal force in the arts community, serving as a role model to many young, aspiring actors wanting to make it in the film industry during a time when racial discrimination was widely accepted and practiced. As an activist, she was an outspoken advocate for social justice and equality at the local level, and her political activism spanned outside her local community to around the world. She was most notably involved in the South African anti-apartheid movement and communist solidarity activities. She was an extraordinary individual who fiercely fought for the rights of all people, passionately believing that every individual regardless of race, age, gender, and political affiliation is created equal.
    Born on September 17, 1905 in East Orange, New Jersey, Frances E. Williams shortly afterwards moved with her family to Cleveland, Ohio where she spent most of her childhood. At the age of 16, she began her acting career on stage at the famous Karamu Theater, one of the oldest African-American theaters. There she formed lifelong friendships with other renowned figures like Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Ethel Waters. In 1934 at the encouragement of Paul Robeson, Williams went to study theater arts in Russia at the height of the socialist revolution. It was during this time that she came into close contact with socialist philosophies and formed ties with those of communist convictions. It was also in Russia that she received the formal training and education in acting that she would not have otherwise received in a still highly segregated America. She returned to New York two years later with the intention to pursue her acting career in theater.
    Theater being her first love, Williams initially had no desire to work in films or television when she moved to California in 1941. She also felt a deep sense of disdain for the stereotypical, demeaning roles that were given to blacks in Hollywood during that time. However, the desire to improve the conditions of her fellow African-Americans in the arts outweighed the personal sense of frustration. She entered Hollywood believing that she could only make an impact from the inside, which she did by helping to start the Actors' Equity Association and working as the assistant director of the landmark film "Salt of the Earth" amidst the racism and discrimination she received. Unabashedly herself in speaking her mind and making her views known, Frances Williams came to be known as a feisty and vibrant actor who delighted her audiences. She indeed paved the way for many of today's African-American artists and entertainers in Hollywood.
    However, Frances Williams was clearly more than a socially-conscious actress. She was an activist and humanitarian in her own right, who deeply felt a social and moral responsibility towards her community and the world at large. In her local community, she was involved in various organizations as a member of the Arts Advisory Board and the California Arts Council and as the co-founder of the Los Angeles African-American Arts Council. As a political activist, she was one of the first black women to run for the California State Assembly in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket. She also represented the World Peace Council at the first Angola Independence Celebration in 1975, helped to organize Women for Racial and Economic Equality (WREE) in Chicago, co-founded the Art Against Apartheid Movement in Los Angeles, and was actively involved in number of other political efforts.
    Another of Williams' great contribution was the Frances E. Williams Corner Theater, her most personal project of all. She converted her garage into a theater where young, aspiring writers and actors from the neighborhood could come to express their artistic talents and creativity. She offered a gathering place and opportunities, which would not otherwise be available to the youth living in economically and socially depressed South Los Angeles. Having lived a truly full and meaningful life devoted to the fight for justice, equality, and rights of all people, she died on January 2, 1995 at the age of 89.

    Scope and Content

    The collection contains personal and organizational correspondence, calendars, photos, conference reports, legal documents, handwritten notes, and various flyers, mailings, and invitations detailing Frances E. Williams' interests and activities. It also includes a 30-minute video dialog of Frances Williams at the William Grant Still Gallery in 1982. The materials document Frances Williams' cultural interests, professional career, community involvements, and political activism in the anti-apartheid and communist solidarity efforts. Having been the chairperson of National Anti-Imperialist Movement in Solidarity with African Liberations (NAIMSAL), Los Angeles Chapter, co-founder of Art Against Apartheid, and an active member of the World Council, Williams' political materials are the highlight of the collection. This includes materials documenting her personal support of Paul Robeson, Bill Taylor, and William Patterson, all well-known African-American political activists of the time. The materials relating to her community activities detail Williams' particular interest in the arts and cultural scene of Los Angeles, desegregation of the schools, and various public works projects aimed at improving the neighborhood. Also of special interest is the section on the Frances E. Williams Corner Theater, a theater that she started at her garage in an effort to bring together young artists around the neighborhood. The collection includes over twenty play scripts submitted to Frances for her review.


    The collection was donated to the Library by the estate of Frances E. Williams following her death in 1995. The collection is divided into eleven series: 1. Personal, 2. Acting & Theater Career, 3. Community Activities, 4. Religious Activities, 5. Paul Robeson, 6. William (Bill) Taylor, 7. The William L. Patterson Foundation, 8. Political Activism, 9. Anti-Apartheid Activism, 10. Communist Solidarity Activism, 11. Clippings.

    Separated Material

    Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café
    Los Angeles Public Library Films Catalog, 1974

    Related Material at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

    Title: Charlotta A. Bass Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1874-1968
    Physical Description: 8 document boxes, 3 cubic feet

    Title: · Bill Taylor Papers,
    Date (inclusive): [1960s-1970s]
    , unprocessed
    Physical Description: [3 cubic feet]

    Title: Frances E. Williams 1905-1995 Film Clips,
    Date: n.d.,
    Physical Description: 11-minutes,
    Location: Video Collection, tape # 96


    Christian, Anna. Meet it, Greet it, and Defeat it: The Biography of Frances E. Williams. Los Angeles : Milligan Books, 1999.