“FORMER SLAVE FIRST TO VOTE” read the headline in the Westerly Sun on November 2, 1920. The individual the headline referred to was Mrs. Anna Thornton Williams, the first woman to cast a ballot in Westerly after the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920.
Today, there stands a grave marker in River Bend Cemetery for Mrs. Williams which reads “ANNA THORNTON WILLIAMS, BORN A SLAVE IN KY, 1856, SHE HATH DONE WHAT SHE COULD.” Anna Williams, born into bondage, lived a full and fascinating life both before and after her historic vote.
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On February 27, 1856, Shumake Williams and Amanda (King) Williams, a slave on the plantation of Andrew and Rachel McClure in Nicholasville, Kentucky, welcomed to the world a daughter, Anna. According to records from later in Anna’s life, it is believed that her father was born in England, however, very little is known about her early life and the lives of her parents. What is known is that Anna was the granddaughter of a man named Hiram King, a Civil War veteran and a slave of a man named Isaac Shelby.
Although an official record has not been located, Anna claimed that in either 1872, when she was just 16 years old, or 1873, she married a man by the name of Walker Thornton. Within the next five years, Anna and Walker moved 85 miles north to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Walker worked as a barber while Anna found work in a confectionery for some time before settling into a lifelong career in beauty and hair care.
Although they were frequently recorded in Cincinnati, Anna and Walker actually settled just outside the city in the town of Miami in Clermont County, Ohio. On June 5, 1885, Anna gave birth to her only child, a son named Charles Walker Thornton. Interestingly, this son’s name was given as Charles Jr. on his birth record, although his father was listed as Walker Thornton.
The marriage between Anna and Walker appears to have been a difficult one, as they were separated by 1890. Three years later, in March 1893, Walker applied for a license to marry his second wife, however, Anna requested an indictment against Walker and presented a certificate showing that she married him in 1873 and that they were not legally divorced.
Between 1894 and 1907, Anna lived in Cincinnati and was variously described as a hairdresser, dermatologist, manicurist, and a scalp specialist, reflecting a wide range of specialized knowledge. During this time, she was consistently living on Fifth Avenue in Cincinnati and her business was operated out of her home. Interestingly, Anna found herself in Watch Hill in the summer of 1895, having traveled there with a woman named Ada Humphrey. Although the reason for her trip is unclear, it may be during this 1895 visit that she initially became attracted to the community.
Anna’s second husband, George Lewis Williams was a barber at Harvard who spent the summers in Watch Hill where he found seasonal employment cutting hair. Given that Anna was both a hairdresser and manicurist, it is a virtual certainty that this line of work and their time spent in Watch Hill is what brought them together. As with her first marriage, a record has not been located for Anna’s second marriage, however, subsequent records suggest that she married George L. Williams c. 1905.
Despite being married, it is possible that the couple lived apart for the next two years, as Anna remained in Cincinnati until at least 1907. On May 25, 1908, George and Anna purchased a house at 21 Newton Avenue, and it was in this home that Anna would live for nearly the rest of her life.
By 1910, George and Anna were fully settled in Westerly, living in their new home on Newton Avenue where Anna was a self-employed scalp specialist, operating out of her home. According to the census from that year, Anna described herself as ‘mulatto’ and indicated that her father was born in England, giving credence to the possibility that her father was a white Englishman. A decade later in 1920, Anna reiterated that her father was born in England. On November 18, 1919, Anna was granted a divorce from George L. Williams on the grounds of “neglect to provide.”
In 1920, Anna was described as a dermatologist and was working on her own account while continuing to live at 21 Newton Avenue. Interestingly, in the 1920 census, Anna was enumerated as white, however, given that all other respondents on the same page were listed as white, it is possible that this was an error. That November, Anna Thornton Williams cast her historic ballot, becoming the first woman to vote in the town of Westerly.
According to the Westerly Sun, which was on the scene for the momentous occasion: “Williams did not say for whom she voted, but as she came from the voting place and was congratulated by a Sun reporter for being the first to vote, she remarked: “Washington left principles for everybody,” which would indicate in itself that she stood for the grand old party.”
Whether or not she definitively voted for the Republican candidate and eventual winner, Warren G. Harding, is unknown, but given that according to later published tallies, Harding won the town of Westerly 2070-490 (approximately 80.8% of voters), this supposition was a fairly safe bet.
After that significant moment in 1920, Anna Thornton Williams continued to live in Westerly for several more years. In 1925, she was once again recorded living alone at 21 Newton Avenue. On May 27, 1929, Anna was admitted to the Howard State Hospital for Mental Diseases in Cranston, Rhode Island. She was recorded at the hospital in both 1930 (when her occupation was given as ‘mending’) and 1935.
Anna Thornton Williams passed away at the State Hospital on September 6, 1936. She was later interred at River Bend Cemetery in Westerly. Anna lived a historic life and in spite of the likely troubles and hardships she almost certainly faced, she was able to live a long, and hopefully fulfilling life. In other words, as her gravestone reminds us: She hath done what she could.