George Washington Williams: A Neglected American Hero

September 23, 2020
George Washington Williams

It took 30 years for John Hope Franklin to write the biography of the remarkable George Washington Williams. George Washington Williams was an American Civil War soldier, Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer who was particularly concerned with recording and preserving African-American history. In the late 1880s, Williams turned his interest to Europe and Africa to connect larger stories of global racism.

In the rebroadcast of John Hope Franklin’s last participation in a Wednesdays at the Center seminar in 2008, he recalled coming across the 1888 “History of the Negro Race in America” by George Washington Williams, and wondering : “Why is he such a deep, dark secret?” 

At that time, African-American scholarship had difficulty moving through the largest stream of American scholarship. “People didn’t pay any attention to what African-Americans wrote,” he said. George Washington Williams became something of a model for him: “His life is an inspiration. He was so professional. He set standards that were so high,” despite not going to college nor graduate school.

George Washington Williams had single handedly started African-American historiography.

The recording also features late Duke professor Professor Srinivas Aravamudan and Dr. Lea Fridman, Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College. Dr. Fridman discovered George Washington Williams through her research on Joseph Conrad, when she learned that Conrad, George Washington Williams, and Roger Casement were in the Belgian Congo in 1890, all horrified by witnessing what would have later been called a “genocide.”

Professor Ranjana Khanna (Director, Franklin Humanities Center) introduced the rebroadcast. “What we see in this video,” she said, “is John Hope Franklin’s great energy in staying with the project and showing us how a historian works—slowly building an archive when there seems to be little material; becoming intrigued in the 1940s by this man, when he comes across the two-volume history of African-Americans; (…) and then of course the endlessly curious, generous spirit of John Hope Franklin as a teacher, scholar, friend, and interlocutor.”

The event was organized by the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) and the John Hope Franklin Center, as part of the 'Wednesdays at the Center' series.

Watch the video of the full event:

George Washington Williams: A Neglected American Hero