Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Forgotten Men" of Black History 3: George Washington Williams

George Washington Williams was a soldier, minister, writer and diplomat. His greatest feat is one that has been totally forgotten today. Read on.

George Washington Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1849 and at the age of 14 he joined the Union Army under an assumed name, where he managed to get into some of the final battles of the Civil War. Following the war, he went to Mexico and joined the rebel army which was fighting to overthrow the Emperor Maximilian. He was commissioned a lieutenant, brushed up on his Spanish, and finally returned to the US in 1867.

He must have loved military service, since he immediately rejoined the army and was sent to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where he was wounded in 1868. After getting out of the army because of his wound, he attended Howard University and then the Newton Theological Institute; he became the first African-American to graduate from there.

He was ordained a Baptist minister, moved around the country, then studied law, and became the first African-American elected to the Ohio State Legislature. He was well-connected enough to be appointed Consul General to Haiti by President Chester A. Arthur, although he never served.

Williams was also the author of a sprawling and somewhat long-winded two-volume 1883 History of the Negro Race in America, which is available for download from Project Gutenberg at Volume 1 and Volume 2.

But what he is should be most noted for -- and sadly forgotten for -- was his journey to the so-called Congo Free State to investigate the conditions "on the ground" in King Leopold's personal African domain.

What he found shocked and appalled and sickened him: Brutality, repression, slavery, physical disfigurement (slaves who failed to meet production quotas lost their hands) and various other "crimes against humanity", for which he sent an accusatory open letter to King Leopold of Belgium, who owned and ran the Congo as his personal fiefdom -- there was no official Belgian colonization of the Congo; Leopold owned it outright and reaped the huge financial benefits of the reign of terror that was the Congo "Free" State.

It was Williams' report and this open letter that first revealed to the world the atrocities that had been hidden in Leopold's "heart of darkness". Finally with public opinion turned against him Leopold abandoned his personal stake in the Congo and the government of Belgium took it over as a colony in 1908.

Williams' trip to Africa and the worldwide effect his J'Accuse! had on Leopold is fascinatingly told in great detail in Adam Hochschild's highly-recommended book, King Leopold's Ghost.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

How could a so gifted and outstanding man die so early ?