Few Americans today recognize the name George Washington Williams, and those who do likely remember him as the hero who first exposed King Leopold’s “benevolent enterprise” in the Congo as brutal imperialism. But before Williams travelled to Africa, he had established himself as an important figure inside the United States. His first book, History of the Negro Race in America (1882), stands as one of the most important contributions any American has made to the field of history.
Born the only child of free African American parents in Pennsylvania in 1848, Williams grew up with little education except “learning about Jesus,” as he later wrote. His father’s frequent absence and descent into alcoholism forced his mother to work, while Williams became “wicked and wild.” He wanted out, and the U.S. government offered him the chance when it allowed African Americans to enlist during the Civil War. Williams joined the Union Army at age fourteen and served in the Indian Wars before a gunshot wound to his chest forced him to leave the army at age eighteen.
Hearing a call to ministry, Williams enrolled in a theological institution in Newton, Massachusetts in 1870. Since Williams’s formal education had been minimal, the school assigned him to a five-year program. Instead, Williams completed the necessary requirements in four years and graduated alongside peers with degrees from Harvard. After graduation he became the pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, MA, replacing the famed abolitionist Leonard Grimes.
Over the next five years, however, Williams changed plans. He watched in horror as the South unfolded into chaos and former Confederates began to reclaim power. “The time has come when the Negro must do something,” he wrote in 1875. Determined to have a wider impact than he could from the pulpit, Williams retired from Twelfth Baptist and started a newspaper to give African Americans a voice in national affairs. He travelled throughout the North and South in search of funding for the paper but managed to produce only eight issues. So he turned from journalism to politics, winning election to the Ohio state legislature. Already, though, Williams had also turned to a field that occupied much of his free time: African American history.
In 1882, Williams published his findings and arguments in a two-volume work entitled History of the Negro Race in America (1882). In about a thousand pages, he traced the history of African Americans from 1619 to 1880. He hoped to “give the world more correct ideas of the Colored people, and to incite the latter to greater effort in the struggle of citizenship and manhood.” To do this, he set out to refute the idea that there was any biological difference between races and to highlight African American heroes in the history of the United States. In this way, History of the Negro Race represents an important primary source for any modern American who seeks to understand what the U.S. was like in 1882.
But the sheer genius of this work extends far beyond these immediate political goals: Williams was a historian of the finest order. He recognized that while other historians “could pass unchallenged when disregarding largely the use of documents and citations of authorities, I would find myself challenged by many critics.” In preparation for such criticism, he conducted research for over seven years. With his independent analysis of sources and unique perspective, Williams came to a number of historical conclusions outside the mainstream of his era. But one hundred thirty years later, historians accept many of these out-of-place interpretations as the most accurate explanations of the past.
Many of Williams’s understandings of history were decades—even more than a century—ahead of their time. In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois celebrated how African Americans had created their own system of education in the South during Reconstruction; Williams had made the point fifty years earlier. In 1947, John Hope Franklin described the magnificence of West African kingdoms before Europeans started the Atlantic slave trade; Williams had presented the same view six decades before. In the 1960s historians approached a consensus that slavery had caused the Civil War; Williams had made the point eighty years earlier. In the 1960s some historians also began to blame both southern white supremacists and over-aggressive northerners for the failure of Reconstruction; Williams had made this point, too. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund Morgan highlighted the dependence of early colonial freedom on a foundation of slavery; Williams had recognized this paradox ninety years earlier. Historians began to highlight the importance of women and African Americans in the abolitionist movement a century after Williams had done so. Williams even indicted all of the United States—North and South—for the legacy of slavery, a point other historians popularized only in the 2000s. These interpretations, which George Washington Williams advanced in the 1880s, now represent the consensus among historians.
Williams’s work marks a pioneering achievement among American historians, and leading African American historians have identified it as such. Du Bois, writing forty years after Williams, described his predecessor as “the greatest historian of the race.” John Hope Franklin honored Williams with a biography that earned runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was the only biography Franklin ever wrote. Most historians, though, continue to see Williams’s History of the Negro Race simply as a primary source rather than as the landmark of American historical achievement that it is.
Williams searched for what he referred to as “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in history. Perhaps today’s underappreciation of his path-breaking work exposes yet another truth: that his critiques of American society remain valid.