George Washington Williams: The Power of the Pen

Part One of a Two Part Series

INTRODUCTION

The power of a pen. Such a fitting statement in the open letter penned by George Washington Williams revealing the barbarity of colonialism in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and the continent of Africa. By exposing the Belgium monarchy, through investigative journalism, one man, an American Civil War soldier, began changing the course of African history.

George Washington Williams

After meeting with King Leopold of Belgium while an American diplomat, Williams witnessed a very different view of the Belgium presence in the Congo Free State than what the Belgium King presented. Due to the well-documented open letter written by Williams to King Leopold in 1890, chronicling the massive enslavement inspiring an international human rights protest movement.

George Washington William’s contribution to Africana Studies was the study itself. During a time when American Blacks were fighting for their rights and peoples all over Africa began realizing their rights were diminishing – Africana studies was not a mainstream thought, discipline, or movement. 

Williams spent a lifetime recounting black histories. He began with his own story as a young Black soldier in the Civil War and progressed to church histories giving people a sense of pride and acknowledgment to their past. He continued his craft through several black run newspapers including his own and ended with the first account of African American history in the United States as well as a historical account of Negro Troops in the Civil War, or, as he termed it, the War of the Rebellion. 

The history of George Washington Williams is not well known and there seems to be limited publications regarding his life. As a student of Africana Studies, I only recently came across his name while studying “An Introduction to African American Studies” from the textbook, “African American Studies: The Discipline and Its Dimensions” by Nathaniel Norment, Jr. His name is listed with the likes of W.E.B Du bois, Carter G. Woodson, John Henrik Clarke and John Hope Franklin.

Upon researching Mr. Williams I was astonished I hadn’t come across his name before. Here was a man that Du bois called the ‘greatest historian of the race’. Quite frankly, I was embarrassed and consumed myself with learning everything I could about this man. A majority of my research comes from a book written by the aforementioned John Hope Franklin, a highly successful historian in his own right who spent years gathering information and research on George Washington Williams.

WHO WAS GEORGE WASHINGTON WILLIAMS

George Washington Williams was born in 1849 Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, a popular trading post that attracted not only settlers to the area but visitors as well. As a boy, Williams is described as adventurous and not really interested in his studies. At the age of 14, he ran away from home to join the Union Army during the Civil War presumably to ‘follow the adventure’. Unable to serve due to being too young, the quick thinking pre-teen registered in the next town over, this time, altering his age and name.

The young Williams took well to the military. It has been virtually impossible to follow his military career because no one is aware of the name he used upon registering for the Union Army. After his death, many years after the war, his widow was unsuccessful in her application for a pension because she lacked that information. (Franklin 3) According to Williams’ own account, he entered the army in 1864 and saw service until the war’s end. After the Civil War, Williams’ reported to Mexico who was in the midst of fighting off the French who were interested in creating a French empire. United States President, Abraham Lincoln cited the Monroe Doctrine as a means to not get involved with their ally, France. As a result, numerous American soldiers, including Williams, fought on the side of Mexico helping them to fight off French imperialism.

When Williams was discharged from the United States Army, he had not yet reached his nineteenth birthday. But he had experienced more than many of his contemporaries. He had fought in the Civil War and had been wounded. He had helped the Mexicans save their republican form of government. And he had given a year to maintaining order on the Indian frontier. (Franklin 8)

After the military, George Washington Williams delved into what would eventually turn into his career and connect him with Black leaders from across the country. Williams became a member of a Baptist church in St. Louis, Missouri. He then became licensed as a Baptist minister in pursuit of his goal to become “a servant of the Lord.” (Franklin 8)

He attempted to enroll at Howard University, however, he ended enrolling into Newton Theological Institution in 1869 and graduated in 1874. Williams was one of 12 graduates selected to address the audience. He chose as his subject, “Early Christianity in Africa.” It was a ten-minute survey of the beginnings of Christianity in Africa with special attention to the great African church leaders: Athanasius, Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine. 

“For nearly three centuries Africa has been robbed of her sable sons. For nearly three centuries they have toiled in bondage, unrequited in this youthful republic of the west. They have grown from a small company to be an exceedingly great people – five million in number no longer chattel, they are human beings; no longer bondsmen, they are free men, with almost every civil disability removed…With his Saxon brother, the African stakes his insatiable thirsting for knowledge at the same fountain…The Negro of this country can turn to his Saxon brothers, and say, as Joseph said to his brethren who wickedly sold him. As for you, ye meant it unto evil but God meant it unto good, that  we, after learning your arts and sciences, might return to Egypt and deliver the rest of our brethren who are yet in the house of bondage. That day will come!” (Franklin 10)

In 1873, the twenty-four year old Williams moved to Boston in order to expand his opportunities as a clergyman. He became a well known figure in Boston networking with local black business leaders. Boston was full of activity particularly related to civil rights issues. United States Republican Senator, Charles Sumner was actively attacking the civil rights issues of the day. Prior to Williams’ arrival in Boston, Sumner introduced a bill mandating equal accommodation in all public places. Sumner’s bill also required any suits brought under the bill to be argued in federal court. A convention was assembled in Washington in support of this bill. Two weeks prior to the convention meeting, Williams sent a letter to a Washington paper expressing the hope that the call would be heard “by every colored man throughout the land!” Williams went on to write about the contributions of black men in the United States through “unrequited toil” and how, “as defenders of the Union” during the Civil War they helped to save it.

This letter. This, call to action if you will, was one of the first times history chronicled George Washington Williams articulating civil rights issues. Even though Sumner’s bill failed to pass, the letter Williams wrote helped propel his notoriety in the city of Boston.

One of the first acts Williams executed once ordained at the Twelfth Baptist Church was write a history of the church. His standards were high, and he insisted that nothing could have induced him to write hastily over the summer months, “save the hope that it may be the means of serving the church financially, for which it was written, and bring its pressing wants before the benevolent public”; provided invaluable information on the early years of the church and of the character and work of Leonard Grimes. Williams’ historical account provided posterity with an important source of information on a pioneering Negro institution. (Franklin 17)

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