George Washington Williams was an accomplished African American intellectual, minister, historian, journalist, lawyer, politician, freelance diplomat, and Civil War veteran. Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1849 and died in England in 1891.
Williams joined the Union army during the Civil War at age 14, after lying about his age. After receiving a medical discharge from the army in 1868, Williams, who was barely literate, enrolled in the Newton Theological Institution in Massachusetts. He went on to be a prolific preacher and politician in Ohio, among his many other notable professional achievements.
In 1885, Williams wrote a two volume book entitled, A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. The book was not wildly acclaimed or reviewed at the time, and John Hope Franklin first encountered Williams’ work while researching From Slavery to Freedom: A History of the Negro in America. Having never heard of Williams or his book, Franklin determined to write a scholarly work about one of the first African American historians.
John Hope Franklin’s book George Washington Williams: A Biography was first published in 1985 by the University of Chicago. Franklin was awarded the Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize for this work. The book traces the life of George Washington Williams from his birth until his death. It is part biography and part social history, and highlights Franklin’s own quest to uncover Williams’ story. In fact, the publication of this book marked the conclusion of a four decade long pursuit for Franklin.
George Washington Williams gravesite remained unmarked until 1975, when Franklin arranged for a tombstone to be placed over the grave.
This series is a part of Duke University’s John Hope Franklin@100: Scholar, Activist, Citizen year-long celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. John Hope Franklin
Submitted by Gloria Ayee, Franklin Research Center Intern