George Washington Williams

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the US Navy officer, see George Washington Williams (naval officer).
George Washington Williams
George W. Williams from History of Negro Troops.jpg
Born (1849-10-16)October 16, 1849
Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania
Died August 1, 1891(1891-08-01) (aged 41)
Blackpool, England
Nationality American
Occupation Soldier, minister, Historian, Lawyer, Journalist

George Washington Williams (October 16, 1849 – August 2, 1891) was an American Civil War veteran, minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and groundbreaking historian of African-American history.

Shortly before his death he travelled to King Leopold II's Congo Free State. Shocked by what he saw, he wrote an open letter to Leopold about the suffering of the region's inhabitants at the hands of Leopold's agents, which spurred the first public outcry against the regime running the Congo under which millions lost their lives.[1][page needed]


Williams was born in 1849 in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, to Thomas and Ellen Rouse Williams. He was the oldest of four children; his brothers were John, Thomas and Harry Lawsom. After a limited education and a stint in a "house of refuge" where he learned barbering, Williams enlisted in the Union Army under an assumed name when he was only 14; he fought during the final battles of the civil war.

Williams went to Mexico and joined the Republican army under the command of General Espinosa, fighting to overthrow Emperor Maximilian. He received a commission as lieutenant, learned some Spanish, got a reputation as a good gunner, and returned to the U.S. in the spring of 1867.

In the United States, he enlisted for a 5-year stint in the army. While serving in the Indian Territory, he was wounded in 1868. He remained hospitalized until his discharge.

Once back in civilian life, the young veteran decided to attend college and was accepted at Howard University. Records do not show his having stayed there very long and, in 1870, he began studies at the Newton Theological Institution. In 1874 Williams became the first African American to graduate from Newton. [2]

He met Sarah A. Sterrett during a visit to Chicago in 1873, and they were married the following spring. They had one son.

After graduation, Williams was ordained as a Baptist minister. He held several pastorates, including the historic Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston.

George Washington Williams' grave

With support from many of the leaders of his time, such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, Williams founded The Commoner, a monthly journal, in Washington, D.C. He published eight issues.

Williams moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he studied law under Alphonso Taft (father of President William Howard Taft). He later became the first African American elected to the Ohio State Legislature, serving one term 1880 to 1881.

In 1885, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Williams "Minister Resident and Consul General" to Haiti. He never served.

In addition to his religious and political achievements, George W. Williams wrote groundbreaking histories about African Americans in the United States: A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion and The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880. The latter was the first overall history of African Americans, showing their participation and contributions from the earliest days of the colonies.

In 1889, Williams was granted an informal audience with King Léopold II of Belgium. At that time, the Congo Free State was the personal possession of the King. He employed a private militia to enforce rubber production by natives and there were widespread rumors of abuses. In spite of the monarch’s objections, Williams went to Central Africa to see the conditions for himself. From Stanley Falls he addressed "An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo" on July 18, 1890. In this letter, he condemned the brutal and inhuman treatment the Congolese were suffering at the hands of Europeans and Africans supervising them for the Congo Free State. He mentioned the role played by Henry M. Stanley, sent to the Congo by the King, in tricking and mistreating local Congolese. Williams reminded the King that the crimes committed were all committed in his name, making him as guilty as the actual culprits. He appealed to the international community of the day to “call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity ...”.

While traveling back from Africa, George Washington Williams died in Blackpool, England, on August 2, 1891, from tuberculosis and pleurisy. He is buried in Layton Cemetery, Blackpool.

Portrayal on film[edit]

Samuel L. Jackson plays Williams in the 2016 film The Legend of Tarzan.


  1. ^ Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold's Ghost, Pan Macmillan, London (1998). ISBN 0-330-49233-0.
  2. ^ David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 169.

See also:

External links[edit]