George Washington Williams was born almost a century before Dr. Carter G. Woodson conceived Negro History Week, now Black History Month, in 1926. However, the versatile Williams, who was a very accomplished man in the world of politics, journalism, religion, history and military affairs, can be seen as a prominent forerunner to Woodson as the “Father of Black History.”
Find out more: To learn more about George Washington Williams, the best place to start is with Williams’ own histories, which have gone through several reprints. After that, we recommend the biography by John Hope Franklin, who devotes a lot of attention to Williams’ travels across Africa.
Discussion: W.E.B. Du Bois, at the back of his book on Black Reconstruction, talks about white historians and their summations of the Civil War and Reconstruction. He also does a good job of showing the importance of Williams in countering some of the wrong conclusions by James Ford Rhodes and others.
Place in context: It is not an easy task to place Williams’ life in one historical period, though the Civil War and colonialism in Africa are significant stages that frame some of his adventures.
Born Oct. 16, 1849, in Bedford Springs, Pa., Williams moved to several places in the state before settling with his family in Newcastle. By this time, his father, Thomas, had overcome his drinking problem and become a more dutiful breadwinner as a barber and minister.
For someone who later became such an outstandingly successful person, Williams’ beginning was not at all remarkable. Getting a decent education was not a priority in his family, and once Williams was deemed unruly and in need of discipline, he was sent to a refuge house. His rebellious nature was not fit for such confinement, and at 14, he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.
When it was detected that he was underage, he resorted to using a number of assumed names and ultimately was able to register for the army, though it is not clear in what capacity he served because it was difficult for his biographers, including the esteemed John Hope Franklin, to determine what name he used. Williams’ widow would encounter a similar obstacle when she sought to acquire his veteran benefits after his death.
Whatever name he used, Williams was apparently an able soldier during conflict, and during the Civil War, the military bug had bitten him deeply and afterward, he was soon off to fight with the Mexican Army against the French. Later, by 1867, he fought as a regular in the U.S. Army and a member of the 10th Calvary, the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers” assigned to pacify the Native Americans.
In 1868, Williams spent most of the year in an infirmary after suffering a gun wound to his leg. It was perhaps during this convalescence that he reached the decision to end his military adventures. “Later he would claim he left the Army because in the Indian Territory, he became convinced that killing people was not the calling of a Christian,” wrote Franklin. “No doubt he did not want to get killed either.”
Honorably discharged from the Army, Williams began a rather interesting trail to the ministry before arriving at Howard University. No school records exist to show he studied there, but within a year, he was off to the renowned Newton Theological Institute near Boston, where he would complete the rigorous course work and obtain his degree by 1874. It was simply amazing that a young man—and he was still only 25—was able to move with such speed from being a semi-illiterate to mastering language and academics, so much so that he was among the few graduates invited to speak at the commencement exercises. His speech on Africa was a harbinger of another important phase of his life.
By 1876, Williams was living in Washington, D.C., and the writing career he had begun while at Newton took another turn in the nation’s capital, where he launched a newspaper dedicated to covering events in the Black community. This was a short-term venture, and he later embarked to Cincinnati to possibly resume his religious interests.
But religion gave way to politics, and within a two-year span, he was immersed in the electoral arena. With the same speed he demonstrated as a student at Newton, Williams was quickly a candidate for office in 1877, though it was an unsuccessful bid for the Ohio state Legislature. However, two years later, he became the first African-American elected to the Ohio Legislature.
Williams’ political breakthrough lasted only a year. He unwisely got involved in a controversy around the placement of a cemetery that proved a detriment to the Black community, and his unpopular position on the matter spelled an end to his political career.
This Week in Black History
Jan. 26, 1892: Bessie Coleman is born. She was the first African-American female pilot and the first African-American to hold an international pilot license. She died in a plane crash in 1926, aged 34.
Jan. 27, 1972: Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel,” dies at age 60. No one delivered the sorrowful songs, the spirituals with such passionate fervor.
Jan. 28, 1997: At South Africa’s Truth Commission, the police confess they killed noted activist Steve Biko in 1977.
One door closed, so to speak, but another opened in a short period of time. All during his endeavors in religion, politics and journalism, Williams was working on a monumental book that was published in 1883. His book “The History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880” was a phenomenal undertaking despite being virtually ignored by white historians. James Ford Rhodes, considered among the country’s most respected historians, had the audacity to write that Black people had no history worthy of discussing and that no one had done anything to prove otherwise. He said this in 1893, 10 years after Williams’ study.
To complete this book, which took him more than seven years of research, Williams said he read some 12,000 books, a thousand of which are cited in his two volumes. If the white historians ignored it, President Chester Arthur did not, as it was influential in getting Williams the appointment of ambassador to Haiti. That assignment never materialized because the next administration canceled it.
The cancelation did not stop Williams’ global pursuits and travels. During one of his trips to Europe, he gained the friendship of King Leopold of Belgium, leader of the European power that dominated the Congo. From discussions with Leopold, he began to seriously study the conditions in the Congo and was soon contracted to write a book about the political and economic affairs there, which would not prove favorable to the Belgium government or to King Leopold.
Williams was unsparing in his assessment of the brutal treatment endured by the Africans, and in a series of articles and letters to world leaders, he expressed his feelings. He would be equally outspoken in his later trips to the colonies controlled by England and Portugal.
His intrepid soul finally came to a halt in the summer of 1891 during a stay in London when he contracted tuberculosis and pleurisy. He died in Blackpool, England, on Aug. 2, 1891, at the age of 42, leaving behind his wife of 17 years, Sarah Sterett Williams, and one son.
John Hope Franklin’s biography is a definitive study of Williams’ remarkable life, and the great professor does a wonderful job of capturing Williams’ tours of Africa and his contributions as a pioneering historian.