George Washington Williams (b. 16 October 1849; d. 2 August 1891) George Washington Williams was born in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. He ran away from home at the age of fourteen to fight for the Union during the Civil War. He was a soldier in Mexico before returning to the United States to serve in the U.S. Army’s all black Tenth Cavalry.
After receiving a medical discharge from the army in 1868, he enrolled in Newton Theological Institution where he learned how to write and speak effectively. He graduated, married Sarah A. Sterrett, and became the pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston–all before the age of twenty-five. He moved to Washington, D.C., the next year, editing a newspaper called the Commoner. But it was after moving to Cincinnati that he established himself, becoming a lawyer, a pastor, a columnist for the Cincinnati Commercial, a historian, and the first black member of the state legislature.
While in Ohio, he write his History of the Negro Race, the first comprehensive scholarly history of African Americans, a significant accomplishment in the nineteenth century. With that book, and then this History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion, Williams claimed his place as the United States’ first black historian.
A storm developed around him, however, when Present Chester Arthur named him to the post of minister of Haiti–one of Arthur’s last acts before Grover Cleveland assumed the presidency in 1885. Many African American leasers were publicly against the appointment, because they felt Williams was an egotist and without character. In possession of a private file showing Williams as owing money to several American officials and prominent Europeans, the Sate Department refuse to allow him to take up his duties, even though the Senate had confirmed him in 1885. Demand his $7,500 salary, Williams sued the government in 1886. Two years later, the U.S. Court of Claims upheld the State Department’s action. An 1889 attempt by Williams to get President Benjamin Harrison to name him to the post was unsuccessful. Harrison instead appointed the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
In 1890 Williams went to Brussels, Belgium, for an antislavery conference, working as a journalist for the Associated Literary Press wire service under the editor S.S. McClure. From Brussels, supported by funds from the railroad magnate Collis P. Huntingdon, Williams went to Africa on a tour of the Belgian Congo. The blatant mass violations of human rights he saw there spurred him to write an open letter to Leopold, blasting the king’s stated goal of “fostering care” in the Congo. Williams wrote: “Your Majesty’s Government has sequestered their land, burned their towns, stolen their property, enslaved their women and children, and committed other crimes too numerous to mention in detail.” In the broadly disseminated letter, he attacked Leopold’s entire colonial structure: he condemned the government for its unfair trade practices, its involvement in the slave trade, its incompetence, and its cruelty to the natives; he criticized the colonial courts and jails; and he denounced the Belgian occupiers’ treatment of women–both native and Portuguese–as concubines.
Williams laid the abuses directly at the king’s feet. “All the crimes perpetuated in the Congo have been done in your name,” Williams wrote,
and you must answer at the bar of Public Sentiment for the misgovernment of a people, whose lives and fortunes were entrusted to you by the august Conference of Berlin, 1884-1885. I now appeal to the Powers, which committed this infant state to your Majesty’s charge, and to the great States which gave it international being; and whose majestic law you have scorned and trampled upon, to call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity, Commerce, Constitutional Government and Christian Civilization.
He called for the Belgian people and antislavery societies around the world to fight this outrage.
Although the letter caused a stir in Belgium, the Brussels Parliament defended Leopold’s actions and Williams was ultimately ignored. European colonialism of Africa by Belgium and other European nations continued. By following his conscience, Williams had alienated many of his allies and benefactors.
Williams died in England the next year, at the age of forty-one, before achieving his next dream, which was to write a lengthy history of Africa. His checkered legacy has not overshadowed his skill as a historian and his commitment to human frights for African people.
*Take directly from Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present, from the age of segregation to the twenty–first century. Vol. 5. Edited by Paul Finkelman. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2009. P 134-135.