Williams, George Washington 1849–1891
George Washington Williams 1849–1891
Historian, legislator, soldier
It is ironic that George Washington Williams has been so long forgotten by history. More than any other American, Williams is the first important historian of the African American experience. He was the first scholar to recognize the importance of recapturing and recording the story of black Americans, from their African roots to their experiences as slaves and citizens in the United States. Williams was more than a historian, however. A self-made man of remarkable drive and initiative, he was also a soldier, a preacher, a lawyer, a journalist and publisher, a member of his state’s legislature and a political activist who fought against the oppressive colonial policies of the European powers in Africa.
George Washington Williams was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania, the second child and first son of Thomas and Ellen Williams. George’s mother had been born free, but his father was born into slavery and later gained his freedom. Neither of his parents could read or write, but they were hard-working and ambitious. George received no formal education and could do little more than write his own name. At the age of fifteen, he ran away from home and enlisted in the Union army.
Williams fought bravely during the Civil War and was wounded at the battle for Richmond. Following the war, he participated in the effort to pacify the Native American population along the western frontier and was wounded again. This second wound pierced Williams’s lung and he was granted a medical discharge from the army. With his military career at an end, Williams joined the Baptist church and decided to become a minister.
Due to his lack of formal education, Williams was denied admission to the prestigious Newton Theological Institute in Massachusetts. Undaunted, he enrolled in general English courses and worked hard to develop his academic skills. Williams’s persistence paid off. He was eventually admitted to Newton and received his doctor of divinity degree in 1874. He soon accepted a position as pastor of the 12th Street Baptist Church in Boston, a church noted for its work in helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada. During his pastorship at 12th Street Baptist, he met Sarah A. Sterret and married her on June 2, 1875.
In 1875, Williams resigned as pastor of 12th Street Baptist Church and moved with his wife and young child to Washington D.C. Upon his arrival, Williams established The Commoner, a journal catering to the needs and interests of black Americans. The first issue of The Commoner was published with great anticipation and included letters of support from prominent African Americans such as Frederick Douglass and abolitionist
At a Glance…
Born George Washington Williams, October 16, 1849, Bedford, PA; died August 2, 1891, in London, England; son of Thomas Williams and Ellen Rouse Williams. Married Sarah A. Sterret, June 2, 1875. Education : Newton Theological Institute, Boston, MA, D. Di., 1874.
Career: 12th Baptist Church, Boston, MA, pastor, 1874-75; The Commoner, Washington, DC, publisher and editor, 1875; Union Baptist Church, Cincinnati, OH, pastor, 1876-80; Cincinnati Commercial, contributing columnist, 1876-80; Ohio House of Representatives, member, 1880-82.
William Lloyd Garrison. Despite the initial enthusiasm, The Commoner was unable to secure a strong base of support and folded after only eight issues. In order to feed his family, Williams was forced to take a job at the Washington post office.
Following the collapse of The Commoner, Williams accepted a position as pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cincinnati. He soon began writing a column for the Cincinnati Commercial under the pen name Aristides. During this time, he also developed an interest in politics and wrote often of the need for improved economic opportunities for black Americans. In 1879, the Republican party of Hamilton County nominated Williams to run for a seat in the Ohio Legislature.
Williams’s candidacy was extremely controversial. His Democratic opponents charged that white Republicans would never support a black man and urged him to withdraw from the race. Williams also did not receive unanimous support within the black community. Some blacks believed that it was inappropriate for a minister to become involved in politics while others claimed that his defeat would be an embarrassment to the black race. Despite these criticisms, Williams refused to withdraw and campaigned extremely hard. Along the campaign trail, he swayed voters through the use of his excellent public speaking skills and shared the podium with the future president of the United States, James Garfield. He attracted national attention and The Washington Post ran a story about his campaign. Williams won the election by a mere 1,400 votes and became the first black man to win election to the Ohio Legislature.
Williams was sworn into office in 1880. During his term, he proved to be a very active and capable legislator. He served on many committees and introduced a controversial bill calling for the legalization of interracial marriage. However, he soon tired of politics and decided not to seek a second term in order to write the history of black Americans.
Williams traveled to libraries across the United States to do research and secure important documents and other data. By his own estimation, he consulted over 12,000 books and thousands of pamphlets and documents to complete the book. In 1883, the History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, Soldiers and as Citizens was published. Considering the fact the Williams had received no formal training as a historian, the book is considered a remarkable example of professional research methods and objectivity. Reviews for the History of the Negro Race were generally favorable. The New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly, two of America’s most prestigious publications, gave their approval. The Atlantic Monthly reviewer called the History of the Negro Race a “work of great value … a treasury of facts.…” Williams’s biographer, John Hope Franklin, remarked “George Washington Williams, at 33 years of age and with no formal training in the field of history, had achieved what no other … person had ever achieved. He had provided a sustained, coherent account of the experiences of the Negro people.”
In 1887, four years after the publication of History of the Negro Race Williams published another historical work, History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 Explaining his reasons for writing the work, Williams wrote, “… the appearance of the Negro soldier in hundreds of histories of the war has been always been incidental. These brave men have had no champion, no one to chronicle their record….” The reviews for History of the Negro Troops more favorable than those for History of the Negro Race W.E.B. DuBois, then the editor of the Fisk University newspaper, called History of the Negro Troops a “splendid narrative.”
Following the publication of History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Williams turned his attention to Africa and the plight of Africans under European colonial rule. He was particularly interested in conditions within the Belgian Congo.
Williams met with King Leopold II of Belgium and discussed his plans to travel to the Belgian Congo to review the conditions there. The King strongly objected to Williams’s trip. Despite his fears that he would be assassinated in the Belgian Congo, Williams went ahead with his plans.
Upon his return, Williams wrote a letter to King Leopold II detailing the rampant greed and cruelty of the Belgian rulers that he witnessed during his trip to the Congo. Williams charged that the slave trade was still active in Africa through the cooperation of the European powers and that workers were being exploited and denied access to the wealth they produced. He also claimed that women were being held as sexual slaves by their white rulers. Addressing the King directly, Williams remarked, “All crimes in the Congo have been done in your name and you must answer … for the misgovernment of the people. …” The allegations in Williams’s letter, which was widely published by the press, shocked Americans and Europeans alike. Although many people doubted Williams’s allegations, he was among the first to expose the true nature of European colonial rule in Africa.
Williams’s arduous travels to Africa took a tremendous toll upon his health. On August 2, 1891, only months after leaving Africa, Williams died in London. Indeed, George Washington Williams was a man of firsts: the first black man to be elected to the Ohio Legislature, the first great black American historian, and the first man to call the world’s attention to the barbaric nature of European colonial rule in Africa. His is truly a life worthy of remembrance and admiration.
History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880:
Negroes as Slaves, Soldiers and as Citizens, G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1883.
History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Harper and Brothers, 1887.
Published Letters and Reports
An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo, Stanley Falls, 1890.
A Report Upon the Congo-State and Country to the President of the Republic of the United States of America, Province of Angola, 1890.
Williams, George Washington, History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Harper and Brothers, 1887, p. 328.
Williams, George Washington, An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo, 1890.
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