A few months ago I came across an 1862 letter from William Cooper Nell, one of the nation’s earliest Black historians, an educator, and abolitionist. In it he discusses work on a second edition of The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, originally published in 1855. It was something of a revelation since I had never seen the letter and–more importantly–wasn’t familiar with Nell. But that discovery introduced me to the rich story of early Black historians, an intriguing chapter in the rise of Black intellectuals.
Of course a name like W. E. B. Du Bois is widely known. But with some rummaging others soon emerged from the collections. Like Nell though, these were often fleeting glimpses. Such was the case with George Washington Williams whose writing Du Bois himself encountered as a Fisk University undergraduate. His impression of Williams is telling: Du Bois subsequently described him as “the greatest historian of the race.” So if you enjoy history and have never heard of him, you should.
Fortunately, the late historian John Hope Franklin’s impressive decades-long excavation of Williams has unearthed the details of Williams’ life and achievements. And despite that, he still seems oddly absent among popularly known Black intellectuals and academics.
While Franklin’s work provides Williams’ rich story in detail, he was born free in Pennsylvania in 1849, and joined the Union army at just 14 years of age. After the Civil War and service in Mexico, Williams turned his attention toward education, addressing a letter requesting admission directly to the founder of Howard University. The lack of polish in the letter reveals the incompleteness of Williams’ education but simultaneously demonstrates how far Williams would come in a rather short period.
When Howard didn’t work out, Williams attended Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts where he excelled, graduating in 1874. He then fulfilled a number of roles, as a Baptist pastor, a columnist, and an Ohio legislator, all before becoming arguably the first historian to write, substantively, about the history of Blacks in America. In recognition, Franklin’s 1946 article named Williams as “the first serious historian of the Negro race.”
Williams thus emerged from a nominally literate veteran to a published historian when his History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 appeared in 1882. A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 followed six years later.
But Williams wasn’t just remarkable for publishing substantive histories on what had been a woefully neglected facet of American history, nor for the fact that he was Black; his work reflected an emerging “scientific” approach to history. Only Williams wasn’t trained in the schools advancing this methodology, he was simply sharp enough to understand and employ its tenets. In fact, as Franklin points out in a 1978 article, Williams recognized the importance of using newspapers before many of his contemporaries, and labeled him a “pioneer” in the use of oral history.
Of course, this begs the question: “Did Williams ever visit the New-York Historical Society?” The answer is, yes, and that is according to Williams himself. In the preface to his History of the Negro Race he acknowledged a number of individuals and repositories where he did much of his work. Among them were George H. Moore, who served for a period as N-YHS librarian, and John Austin Stevens, founder of the Magazine of American History who also served a tenure as N-YHS librarian. (According to Williams, Stevens even allowed him to make use of the Magazine’s offices.)
But there is a mysterious lack of documentation on Williams in both the papers of John Austin Stevens, or the institutional archive, despite a nearly obsessive search. No visitors’ register is extant from the years Williams would have been working either. The lack of any material record of his interactions is exceptionally frustrating.
Still, Williams is represented in the collections. Rightly so, his two primary works appear as do a number of other published writings. Among them is a pamphlet he inscribed “with regards” to George H. Moore, and another inscribed to Richard T. Greener, an eminent lawyer, diplomat and first Black graduate of Harvard (whose daughter, Belle da Costa Greene, would serve as J. Pierpont Morgan’s librarian).
Complementing these are documents reflecting Williams’ research work itself. One is an 1885 Department of State letter of transmittal with transcriptions of twenty original documents held there. The other is Williams’ “Catalogue of Historical Data of the Revolutionary Period of American History” naming sources at various institutions, such as the American Antiquarian Society, Library of Congress and Massachusetts Archives. Dated 1888, this was just as he published his opus on Black soldiers in the Civil War. It’s possible Williams had had intentions to publish it but never got around to it.
Perhaps even more intriguing though is the undated second page of a letter in the N-YHS collections from Williams to an unnamed recipient. Further investigation, especially with Franklin’s detailed biography, may reveal additional context. But one thing is for sure, it’s certainly not from the Civil War era, despite its presence in a collection titled “Civil War Letters.” This much is clear since we know that Williams’ education was not really advanced before the 1870s. In the letter, Williams also makes reference to “three valuable Post-Revolutionary papers.” One wonders if this is a reflection of his innovative use of newspapers. Regardless, it’s clearly something that wouldn’t have happened until the 1870s, at the earliest. (An online image search even turns up a Buffalo Bill letter dated 1886 written on what appears to be identical stationery, and adds to the circumstantial evidence that it’s from the period of his most active historical research.)
Unfortunately, Williams’ premature death in 1891, at the age of 41, deprived the profession of a fuller career of work. He succumbed to tuberculosis and pleurisy in England following a trip to Africa, meant as a precursor to a work on European colonialism there.
Of course, Williams’ career is remarkable in a rather obvious way; many repositories’ doors remained closed to Black researchers. Williams’ ability to connect with prominent figures likely served him well, and was perhaps foreshadowed by the boldness of his letter to Howard’s founder in his youth. But it may also establish Williams as the exception. Surely not every budding Black scholar, less bold, was able to tap into such resources. And even Williams would have found libraries inaccessible, especially in the American South.
Whatever the case, Williams’ work is worthy of broader awareness, and not merely within the confines of being a “Black historian,” but ranked with those late 19th century historians whose methodologies reflected the progress being made in the study of history.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts