Skip to main content

Williams, George Washington 1849–1891

George Washington Williams 18491891

Historian, legislator, soldier

From Soldier to Minister

Pursued Writing and Politics

Left Politics for History

Traveled to Africa

Selected writings


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 states legislature and a political activist who fought against the oppressive colonial policies of the European powers in Africa.

From Soldier to Minister

George Washington Williams was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania, the second child and first son of Thomas and Ellen Williams. Georges 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 Williamss 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. Williamss 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.

Pursued Writing and Politics

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.

Williamss 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.

Left Politics for History

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 Americas 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. Williamss 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.

Traveled to Africa

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 Williamss 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 Williamss letter, which was widely published by the press, shocked Americans and Europeans alike. Although many people doubted Williamss allegations, he was among the first to expose the true nature of European colonial rule in Africa.

Williamss 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 worlds attention to the barbaric nature of European colonial rule in Africa. His is truly a life worthy of remembrance and admiration.

Selected writings


History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880:

Negroes as Slaves, Soldiers and as Citizens, G. P.

Putnams 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.



Franklin, John Hope, George Washington Williams, University of Chicago Press, 1985.

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.

Jim McDermott

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Williams, George Washington 1849–1891." Contemporary Black Biography. . 20 Mar. 2019 <>.

"Williams, George Washington 1849–1891." Contemporary Black Biography. . (March 20, 2019).

"Williams, George Washington 1849–1891." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.