George Washington Williams
A belief in the self-made man has been an enduring characteristic of America since its first settlements. Rising from obscurity, poverty, or other conditions, men such as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller, to name a few, have been used as role models. It was the idea of the self-made man and a belief in the opportunities that the country afforded to those who would take advantage of them that influenced George Washington Williams to apply himself and earn a footnote in history for having been an editor, columnist, legislator, historian, appointee to a diplomatic post, world traveler, and critic. His achievements are more significant since they were accomplished in the last half of the nineteenth century when this country did not provide very many opportunities for its black citizens.
Born in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, in October of 1849, Williams could not help but be aware of the contrast with the conditions of blacks in nearby Maryland as he grew up. He received little formal education or training other than in barbering, a trade practiced by his father. Very much aware of the issues of the day, Williams wanted to participate in the changes that were taking place in American society. When federal authorities allowed enlistment of black troops to fight in the Civil War, Williams lied about his age and enlisted at fourteen because his “Hart burned with eager joy to meet the Planter on the Field of Battle to prove our Human Cherater [Character].”
Williams served until the war’s end in 1865 and saw many engagements, notably Richmond and Petersburg. He took advantage of an opportunity and joined the forces of Mexican General Espinosa, who was leading opposition to Emperor Maximilian. In 1867, Williams returned to the United States and reenlisted in the army at Fort Riley, Kansas. He finished his military career at Fort Arbuckle in Indian territory, where life “would flow merrily awaywith but little to do, far away from the Indian’s deadly arrow.” Williams, however, did see further action and was wounded in the left lung, an event that led to his discharge from the army and, more important, permanently weakened the affected lung. His experience as a soldier would provide the background for a later interest in and publication on the role black troops played in the Civil War.
At loose ends and painfully aware of the handicap of being functionally illiterate, Williams worked his way east with the goal of becoming educated and improving his condition. At twenty-one, he applied for admission to the new school for blacks that General Oliver Howard was opening in Washington—Howard University. He was accepted and attended for a few months before deciding to answer a call and attend Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts in 1870. In addition to the normal course, Williams had to overcome his deficiencies in writing, reading, and public speaking. By the time he was graduated in 1874, he had become quite literate, developing a highly competent writing style and a reputation as an orator.
Upon graduation, Williams moved to Boston where events were to change the direction of his life. He accepted the post of pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church and married Sarah Sterrett. While at Twelfth Baptist, Williams engaged in activities that would set the pattern for the remainder of his life: involvement in civic activities, political activity on behalf of the Republican Party, and writing history—in this first instance a history of the Twelfth Baptist Church. His activities for the Republican Party provided the opportunity to make the acquaintance of influential people on the local, state, and national level.
Williams was not content to remain a Boston minister; he wanted to help improve the circumstances of blacks throughout the country. It was his view that a national newspaper would aid in this endeavor, so he resigned his pastorate in 1875 and moved to Washington. There he founded and edited The Commoner, a paper that “will be their teacher, their friend, their mirror. As a teacher it will discuss educational and social problems; as a friend it will lead them from the political arena to the firm foundations of enlightened citizenshipas a mirror it will reflect the virtue, genius, and industry of the emancipated millions of this country.” Financial problems and lack of support from the impoverished potential readership led to The Commoner’s demise after only eight issues. Still, Williams continued to believe in the power of the press, and for the remainder of his life he contributed pieces to newspapers serving the black community. With the failure of his paper, Williams accepted the first of several government appointments—made possible through contacts developed during his political activities—that he was to hold in his lifetime.
In 1876, Williams abandoned Washington, moving to Cincinnati, a growing community that offered economic opportunities for blacks. Williams secured the pastorate of the Union Baptist Church and once again involved himself in local civic and political activities. He wrote a column for the local newspaper and actively campaigned for Republican candidates. His Republican activities brought him into contact with many influential party leaders in Ohio and,...
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