Born in Pennsylvania in 1849, Williams misrepresented his age in order to be accepted into the Union Army in 1864. Part of the last campaign of the Civil War, Williams and his fellow black soldiers helped shut down Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s escape route out of Virginia’s Appomattox Court House. Williams was a proud veteran of the war, and especially proud of the dignity with which he and the other black troops had treated Lee’s surrendering white Confederates. It was, as Elizabeth R. Varon writes for the OUP blog, “an exercise of moral authority—a conscious effort, as purposeful as Grant’s own clemency to Lee—to break the cycle of violence slaveholders had perpetrated; to refute the white supremacist prophecy that emancipation would open a Pandora’s box of racial strife; and to prove that the freed people had earned full citizenship.”
Williams, with his well-groomed mustache and military bearing, played the part of citizen well. He was noted for “his eagerness to consort with the high and mighty,” Hochschild writes, even to the point of sometimes turning other members of his race decidedly off. “I trust that every colored American blushes that voted for him,” railed one William Alexander in 1880. Alexander, according to John Hope Franklin’s 1985 biography, George Washington Williams, was denouncing Williams, then a member of the Ohio state legislature, for pushing a bill to placate wealthy whites seeking to close the Colored American Cemetery in Avondale, Ohio.
After bouncing around in the Mexican and U.S. armies after the Civil War, and long before his time in the legislature, Williams studied for a short time at Howard University. (“Sometimes [it] came out sounding like Harvard University,” Hochschild humorously notes.) In 1874, Williams graduated from the Newton Theological Institution outside of Boston, where, in a commencement address, he spoke of that sleeping giant, Africa, and its appeal to men like him.
As Hochschild relates, Williams said, “For nearly three centuries Africa has been robbed of her sable sons. … The Negro of this country can turn to his Saxon brothers, and say, as Joseph said to his brethren, who wickedly sold him, ‘… we, after learning your arts and sciences, might return to Egypt and deliver the rest of our brethren who are yet in the house of bondage.’ That day it will come!”
Williams was restless for his own day to come. In the ensuing years, he ministered to congregations, started two newspapers, apprenticed as a lawyer, wrote a play about slavery and became the first black man to serve in the Ohio state legislature. He eventually earned the honorary title of “colonel” for his efforts on behalf of black Union Army veterans (though he stretched the truth to make it seem as if he had earned that rank for his service in the war). He even almost became the first African-American U.S. minister to Haiti, until President Arthur left office and rumors of Williams’ personal debts caught up with him. (That office went to Frederick Douglass, who, a few years before, had blessed Williams’ first venture into journalism in Washington, D.C.)
Williams made his greatest impact as a historian, cranking out close to 1,100 pages in his two-volume set History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens, published in New York in 1883. Having honed his skills as a writer at seminary, Williams was lauded for his innovative investigatory skills, including interviews, contacting generals for information and soliciting church records and any other documents to fill in the gaps others had left. To his curriculum vitae he added another volume in 1888: A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Ever the soldier who had courageously wrangled his way into the Civil War, Williams combined impressive ambition with adventurous wanderlust that remained unabated in his adult years.
After learning of Leopold’s “Congo Free State” at the White House meeting with President Arthur and Leopold’s lobbyist, Henry Shelton Sanford (himself eager for U.S. recognition of the king’s venture), Williams hoped to attract backers for his plan to go to the Congo, write and recruit other ambitious young black men to follow. His eventual sponsor was American railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, an investor in Leopold’s Congo railroad. Once he hatched his plan, Williams, back and forth to Europe, made his pitch at a Virginia college. But with so little to go on, his audience balked, Hochschild explains.
Rebuffed, Williams decided to check things out for himself and report what he had learned back home. Yet it quickly became apparent that all was not as cozy as Leopold had claimed when Williams was asked to postpone his trip for, get this, five years at least! It was one thing for the king to sell the Congo to a reporter in the abstract; it was quite another to allow him to go there and report for himself.
Nevertheless, Williams pressed on, a pioneering black investigative reporter in an age of muckraking journalists squaring off against the titans of industry. But Leopold’s Congo was a kingdom within a continent, and, unlike earlier explorers, Williams wasn’t interested in the fountain of youth or lost cities of gold, but rather in what we might call “the African Dream.” What he discovered, instead, sailing around the continent and up the Congo River, was that Leopold’s “Free State” was rotten—not because of heat or humidity, but because of the brutal hypocrisy at the heart of the scheme. This wasn’t a revolution to exalt African men and women, but an extractive pursuit in which black human life had exactly zero worth. No wonder the only items that those in Europe saw leaving their ports in exchange for all that ivory were guns and ammunition.