George Washington Williams (October 16, 1849 – August 2, 1891) was an American Civil War veteran, minister, politician and historian. Shortly before his death he travelled to King Leopold II’s Congo Free State and his open letter to Leopold about the suffering of the region’s inhabitants at the hands of Leopold’s agents, helped to sway European and American public opinion against the regime running the Congo, under which some 10 million people lost their lives.
Williams was born in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, to Thomas and Ellen Rouse Williams. He was the eldest 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 and fought during the final battles of the American Civil War.
He 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.
Back home, he enlisted for a 5-year stint in the army and while 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. Williams became the first African-American to graduate from Newton in 1874.
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, he was ordained as a Baptist minister and held several pastorates, including the historic Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston.
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 was only able to publish eight issues.
Williams moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he studied law. 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 was also the author of A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion and The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880, the first history of African-Americans.
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. In spite of the monarch’s objections, Williams went to Central Africa to see the conditions there for himself, from where he addressed “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo” from Stanley Falls on July 18, 1890. In this letter, he condemned the brutal and inhuman treatment the Congolese were suffering at the hands of the colonizers. He mentioned the role played by Henry M. Stanley, sent to the Congo by the King, in tricking and mistreating the Africans. 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 …” His charges and the reaction to them were discussed in the book, King Leopold’s Ghost.
Traveling back from Africa, George Washington Williams died in Blackpool, England, on August 2, 1891, from tuberculosis and pleurisy, and is buried in Layton Cemetery, Blackpool.
- George Washington Williams
- History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers and as Citizens By George Washington Williams
- A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 By George Washington Williams
- Soldier, Scholar, Statesman, Trickster
- George Washington Williams (1849 – 1891) – Find A Grave Memorial
- Works by George Washington Williams at Project Gutenberg