Who Was Black America’s 1st Investigative Journalist?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet the man who exposed a colonial atrocity of epic proportions.

George Washington Williams, depicted on autographed frontispiece of History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 79: Who was the first African-American writer to investigate and report the wrongdoings of a world leader?

George Washington Williams didn’t travel to the Congo in 1890 intending to expose King Leopold II of Belgium as a gross violator of human rights. If anything, Williams hoped the king’s venture there would offer an opportunity for Williams to fulfill his own quest. Ever since he graduated from seminary 16 years earlier, Williams had sought a place in the world where black men like him could make a difference for the black people still living on the African continent. What Williams found in the Congo, however, was a far different story, one almost too terrible for words. But he had the courage to try to tell the world what he had seen. In an open letter to the king from a base at Stanley Falls, Williams—who had already published his monumental History of the Negro Race in America in 1883—became the first investigative journalist to reveal the hypocrisy of one of the most exploitative rulers of the late-19th century, a European king whose designs on the resources of the Congo set off a furious, and notorious, “Scramble for Africa.”  

Contrary to what most might think, the first whistleblower about Belgian atrocities in the Congo wasn’t the famous novelist Joseph Conrad in his 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, but Williams, an African American writing from the heart of King Leopold’s “Congo Free State.” You can bet Leopold tried to trash Williams for his shocking exposé, but to W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Williams was “the greatest historian of the race.” In anguish, he blew the doors off one of the cruelest frauds in history, not long before his own story came to a tragic end.

‘The Congo Free State’

Williams learned of Leopold’s efforts to modernize the Congo while visiting President Chester Arthur at the White House and, in support of the move, urged the Senate to join the international community in recognizing the association Leopold had founded to lead the mission. It was at the Congress of Berlin in 1884-1885 that German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had given Leopold a free hand in running the Congo. Leopold himself had learned about the Congo from reading of the exploits of the notorious Henry Morton Stanley, a correspondent for the New York Herald who, in 1871, found the missing Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone in the Congo, greeting him with the famous line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Leopold had made his own presumption about the lands “discovered” by Portuguese traders in the 15th century, calling the area a “magnifique gâteau africain,” as Paul Vallely explains in a 2006 piece for the BBC, “Forever in Chains: The Tragic History of the Congo.” 

After meeting the opportunistic Stanley, who had served as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, Leopold made him his agent, charging him with gobbling up land through sham treaties with local chiefs from 1878 to 1883. Vallely says there were about 400 such “cloth and trinket” treaties with Congolese chiefs. But Leopold didn’t want their lands for the Belgian government. He wanted them for himself, sort of as his own personal empire outside of the empire.

By the time he was done, Leopold had accumulated nearly one million square miles and somehow persuaded the international community to sanction his “Congo Free State” under the guise that he was an antislavery man who, as the Daily Telegraph put it in 1884, only wanted to spread to the continent “new ideas of law, order, humanity and protection of the natives,” as Vallely relates. Actually, Leopold had designs on the Congo’s ivory supply and, in a diabolical racket, persuaded the powers-that-be to declare it a free trade zone under his control so he could tax other trading companies while exempting his own. All the more remarkable is that Leopold himself never visited the Congo, “an unmapped jungle, 75 times the size of Belgium,” all under his thumb, Vallely writes.   

Little did Leopold know that a black man would be the first in a chorus of voices to expose his depraved, monopolistic rule. It would have been especially surprising to him that that man would turn out to be George Washington Williams. After all, in 1889, Williams had interviewed Leopold for a news article and was plainly “dazzled,” Adam Hochschild says in his 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. In fact, Williams reported to his readers back in the States that Leopold was “a pleasant and entertaining conversationalist” who had modestly told Williams, “What I do there [in the Congo] is done as a Christian duty to the poor Africa; and I do not wish to have one franc back of all the money I have expended.” In Leopold’s Congo, Williams saw hope for his own missionary plan to recruit dozens of American black men to venture overseas to bring order to their ancestors’ home continent, a sort of proto Peace Corps, if you will. It wasn’t the first scheme Williams had hatched. For alongside the journalist in him, there was also something of a dreamer, and an entrepreneur.

‘The Colonel’