Who Was Black America’s 1st Investigative Journalist?

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

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.

To Africa

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.  


Williams kept track of what he saw sailing along the Congo, and, Hochschild writes, by mid-July 1890 at Stanley Falls, he couldn’t take it anymore. Williams realized he couldn’t write as a propagandist for the king and felt compelled to blow the whistle, Hochschild recounts, as a black man “doubly horrified” by what he saw and by the grievous disappointment he felt.

Williams’ ‘Open Letter’ to the King

The result was a 4,000-word letter that combined the best of Williams’ skills as a journalist, lawyer, minister, dramatist and defender of human rights. He may have opened it by addressing Leopold as his “good and great friend,” but this was a takedown, using the only weapon Williams had a continent away from where the king was perched: paper and pen. His missive was titled "An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo By Colonel, The Honorable Geo. W. Williams, of the United States of America," a title with more characters than a single tweet. In the letter, Williams wrote of “how thoroughly I have been disenchanted, disappointed and disheartened” so that “it is now my painful duty to make known to your Majesty in plain but respectful language.” (You can read the letter in its entirety here.)


Williams’ charges included deception (and intimidation) in getting the Congolese chiefs to trade away their lands in exchange for their own enslavement, exploitation, pillaging and forced prostitution. Williams even noted the king’s failure to build an adequate hospital for his own white officers in charge of the carnage. The culprits, he made clear, were both white and black, including the mercenaries Leopold’s men hired from surrounding regions to enforce his rule, and the victims were the inhabitants of the Congo condemned to torture, suffering and death if they did not bend to his will.

Williams’ express goal was to persuade the world community to put pressure on Leopold and investigate his crimes:  

Against the deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-raiding, and general policy of cruelty of your Majesty’s Government to the natives, stands their record of unexampled patience, long-suffering and forgiving spirit, which put the boasted civilisation and professed religion of your Majesty’s Government to the blush.

All the crimes perpetrated in the Congo have been done in your name, and you must answer at the bar of Public Sentiment for the misgovernment of a people, whose lives and fortunes were entrusted to you by the august Conference of Berlin, 1884-1885.

I now appeal to the Powers which committed this infant State to your Majesty’s charge, and to the great States which gave it international being; and whose majestic law you have scorned and trampled upon, to call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity, Commerce, Constitutional Government and Christian Civilisation.


Williams followed up with letters to the U.S. secretary of state and a report to President Benjamin Harrison. He even said he was offered slaves himself. Williams’ open letter, which was published as a pamphlet and made public, was nothing less than “a milestone in the literature of human rights and of investigative journalism,” Hochschild argues. In fact, viewing it as a precursor to the Nuremberg trials against the Nazis after World War II, Hochschild credits Williams for invoking the familiar charge “crimes against humanity” against Leopold and his Congolese regime.

The Counterattack

The king, of course, was caught off guard by Williams’ linguistic assault, after which his right hand, the “great” Henry Stanley, defensively accused Williams of “blackmail” in the New York Herald, the newspaper that had sent him to the Congo to find Dr. Livingstone, according to Hochschild. The Leopoldian response is so familiar to us today—a rapid response to discredit one’s accusers. Their formula: to smear Williams as a liar who lacked credibility; who had puffed himself up with the inflated title of “colonel”; who was really in the pocket of those who wanted looser trade in the Congo, perhaps the Dutch; and who should be taken with a grain of salt given what his American countrymen were doing to the American Indians in the West.


If Williams were alive today, he could have tweeted back his replies and, in so doing, spark a worldwide dialogue. Unfortunately back then, it took a lot longer for a lone voice to defend himself. But eventually that did happen, so that by the following decade, the chorus of voices speaking out against Leopold included Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed Moran and British consul Roger Casement, whose 1904 government report, Vallely writes, “suggested that at least three million people had died” in the Congo.  

The only problem with that timetable, however, was that by then, Williams himself was not alive to see it.


Tragically, he died a year after writing his open letter to the king, having contracted tuberculosis in Egypt. And before that, as further damage to his reputation, he had become engaged to a white woman while separated from his wife and son back home in the States. George Washington Williams died in Blackpool, England, on Aug. 2, 1891, at age 41 and was buried in an unmarked grave there until his biographer, the distinguished African-American historian John Hope Franklin, arranged for a headstone in 1975.

By that point, Congo had become Zaire (now renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo) under the oppressive hand of Joseph Mobutu, who, courting U.S. support, had staged a coup against the visionary Patrice Lumumba after Congo won its independence from Belgium in the historic year of African independence, 1960. As vicious as the scenes that Williams had witnessed 70 years before, there were worse atrocities in the so-called rubber era (peak years: 1890-1910), when millions of Congolese laborers had to meet strict ivory and rubber quotas for the world’s soaring tire demand or have their hands chopped off.  


The crimes committed in Leopold’s name before and during the rubber era were among the worst human rights violations in history. According to Vallely:

The routine penalty for failing to bring in enough rubber was the severing of a hand. Soldiers collected them by the basketload, from the living and the dead. A Baptist missionary wrote a letter to The Times about it: “The hands—the hands of men, women and children—were placed in rows before the commissary who counted them to see that the soldiers had not wasted cartridges.” Officers were worried that the men might waste their ammunition hunting animals for sport, so they required soldiers to submit one hand for every bullet spent. Hands became a grim currency, traded to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas. … Other testimony disclosed how Belgian officers ordered their men “to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross.” 


And George Washington Williams, who, having once dreamed of a black liberation movement in Africa, peered into Leopold’s “heart of darkness” and didn’t flinch from reporting on the nightmare he saw—a nightmare even worse than the reign of terror he had witnessed under the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Reconstruction South.  


We need investigative journalists like George Washington Williams, even though, as Franklin wrote in the American National Biography, “To many on both sides of the racial divide [Williams] possessed a curious combination of rare genius, remarkable resourcefulness, and an incomparable talent for self-aggrandizement.” A confabulator with ego, Williams discovered far worse in men like Leopold and his lackey Stanley. For while Williams hustled creditors and credits, those two men preyed on the most vulnerable in ways as wicked as they were vicious. At risk to himself, deep in that heart of darkness, Williams spoke truth to power.


Speaking of legends, the fabulous Samuel L. Jackson is said to be playing Williams in the upcoming reboot of Tarzan, but let us never lose sight of fact versus fiction. As Hochschild writes, “[W]hatever Williams’s elaboration of his own resume, virtually everything he wrote about the Congo would later be corroborated—abundantly—by others … his words ever more prophetic.” 

As for King Leopold II, he died in 1909 after the Belgian parliament annexed the Congo from him at a handsome price. Sure, it took others to blow the whistle even more loudly on the crimes committed under his regime, but Leopold’s black nemesis, George Washington Williams, was the first to sound it, and for that, he should be ranked as black America’s first great investigative journalist. I only wish his pen could have crushed Leopold’s evil scheme altogether so that the lives of millions of Africans could have been saved from the ripple effect of the Belgian king’s most vicious scramble. 


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.