The Father of African-American History


No, it’s not Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson most certainly helped establish Negro History Week in 1926–the second week in February (also honoring the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass), which eventually became Black History Month in 1976–but there’s another African-American man who’s credited with first documenting the history of Black people in America. His name: George Washington Williams.

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George Washington Williams was born in Bedford Springs, PA, on October 16, 1849. He joined the Union Army during the Civil War at age 14. He later enlisted in the Army of the Republic of Mexico, under the command of General Espinosa in an effort to overthrow Emperor Maximilian, and went on to become a lieutenant-colonel. He returned to the U.S. in 1867, enlisted in the army, and was wounded in 1868. He was hospitalized until his discharge. After a brief stint at Howard University in DC, he began studies at Newton Theological Institute in 1870 near Boston. He was the first African-American to graduate from Newton in 1874. While in Boston, he became active in racial politics and in 1875 launched The Commoner, a monthly journal that chronicled and voiced the plight of his people. He only published 8 issues, due to financial limitations.

In 1876 he moved to Cincinnati, OH, to serve as pastor of Union Baptist Church. The concept of “union” repeatedly popped up in his life. While in Ohio, he studied law and became the first African-American to serve in the state legislature.

George Washington Williams authored two definitive books in 1883 on the African experience in America, A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion and The History of the Negro Race in America 1619 – 1880 (two volumes), the first history of African Americans from Jamestown to the end of Reconstruction as slaves, soldiers, and citizens. These are perhaps his greatest achievement. His books set the standard for African-American historical documentation. Based on his research, he logically concluded that slavery was harmful to both the enslaved and the enslaver, corrupted America as a whole, and would eventually lead to more race-related issues and conflict.

In 1889, Williams met with Belgium’s King Leopold II to share his plans to travel to the Belgian Congo. Although the King objected, Williams traveled to the central African colony anyway and was horrified by what he saw there. He outlined his concerns in a letter to Leopold in July, 1890, and condemned the colonizers, sent by Leopold, for their cruel and inhumane treatment of the indigenous Africans. He also charged that slavery was still being practiced in Africa, thanks to Europe.

Sadly, Williams didn’t get a chance to pursue the Congo dilemma with King Leopold. He died a year later in Blackpool, England, on August 2, 1891. He would have turned 42 on his next birthday.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish a lot in no time.

Speak your peace.

One Response to “The Father of African-American History”

  1. 1 Cecil Jones

    I simply loved this story. It was inspirational and well documented and it was history. I have been inspired to lift my veil of silence once again. I saw that NBC did a little story on the Globetrotters within 48 hours of the mention I gave them. Anything that may or may not be tied into building respect or appreciation for equality and unity is something that I must support whole-heartedly. I simply loved this story. One person can make a difference if they are just crazy enough to speak truth to power. You’ve got the power and I speak the truth. Someday we could be remembered for what we did to inspire future generations? Let’s try?

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