Article abstract: As the author of the first reliable history of black Americans and a prominent political spokesman and observer, Williams contributed to the development of African American identity and racial pride.
George Washington Williams was born in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, on October 16, 1849. His father, a free black named Thomas Williams, is believed to have been the son of a white Virginia planter and a slave woman. Sometime during the 1840’s, the elder Williams moved to Bedford Springs, where he met and married Ellen Rouse, a light-skinned local black woman. George was the second of five children born to the couple. His childhood was a difficult one, plagued by frequent moves, family instability, a scant education, and Thomas Williams’ heavy drinking. Although the elder Williams eventually tempered his life-style enough to serve as the minister of a black church in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, George became incorrigible and was placed in a refuge house for delinquent juveniles. There, he discovered literature and religion, interests that were to permeate his adult life.
Drawn by a sense of adventure, Williams went off to fight in the Civil War at age fourteen. By falsifying his age and using an assumed name, he was able to enlist in a black Union army regiment in August, 1864. He saw action in the closing battles in Virginia, including the campaigns against Petersburg and Richmond. After the war, his unit was transferred to Texas, but he soon left it and joined the revolutionary forces that were fighting to overthrow Emperor Maximilian, an Austrian interloper on the Mexican throne. Shortly before Maximilian’s capture and execution in 1867, Williams returned to the United States and reenlisted. He served for more than a year as a cavalry sergeant at military posts in Kansas and Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) until discharged in 1868.
Although untrained and barely literate, Williams was licensed as a Baptist preacher shortly after his military career ended. In September, 1870, he enrolled at the Newton Theological Institution, a Baptist school and seminary near Boston, Massachusetts. Williams completed both his general studies and his theological training in an astonishingly brief four years and was recognized as a good student. In June, 1874, he was graduated from Newton, was ordained in the Baptist clergy, and married Sarah A. Sterrett. A prominent member of Boston’s black community during his Newton years, Williams was named pastor of the city’s historic, black Twelfth Baptist Church in 1873. While in that position, he joined other black leaders in working for passage of a national civil rights bill, publicly voiced his concerns about the course of Reconstruction, and penned a history of the local congregation. When he resigned his pastorate in October, 1875, it was to pursue these two emerging interests—politics and history.
One month before resigning his Boston pastorate, Williams went with his wife and infant son to Washington, D.C., which had become a gathering place for many of the nation’s black leaders. With their assistance, he soon inaugurated a new weekly newspaper called The Commoner, which he hoped would reach beyond the “chilling shadow of slavery” and become “a powerful agent for reorganizing the race.” Although he believed that it would attract a national audience, few subscribed and he was unable to sustain it beyond eight issues. The brevity of his encounter with the national political scene merely heightened Williams’ interest in politics.
In February, 1876, Williams was called to the pastorate of the Union Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. He quickly made his mark on the local black community as an energetic pastor, an articulate spokesman and imaginative leader in racial affairs, and a regular contributor to the Commercial—a leading local newspaper—on a variety of local and national issues. He also became active in local Republican Party circles, rapidly gaining control of the party machinery in the city’s black precincts. Nominated as a candidate for the Ohio legislature in 1877, Williams proved a strong campaigner, but he was overwhelmingly defeated as many white voters openly refused to cast their ballot for a black man. After this taste of politics, he left the ministry and briefly published a newspaper called The Southwestern Review (1877-1878). When it folded, the peripatetic Williams embarked upon the study of law with Alphonso Taft, the father of President William Howard Taft and a politician of national prominence in his own right. He later attended lectures at the Cincinnati Law School.
Continuing to campaign extensively for Republican candidates, Williams proved to be particularly adept at “waving the bloody shirt”—linking the Democratic Party with the Confederacy, slavery, and responsibility for starting the Civil War. In 1879, he was again nominated as a candidate for the Ohio legislature. Despite widespread criticism, he campaigned hard, openly courted white support, and was narrowly elected. Williams distinguished himself as an active legislator, sponsoring several reform measures, including legislation to control the use of alcoholic beverages. On occasion he became the center of controversy, as when he called...
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