Painting of George Washington Williams addressing the Ohio State Legislature. Williams was the first African-American elected to the Ohio State Legislature, serving one term 1880 to 1881. (Photo from the Ohio Statehouse.)

The original 1619 project: George Washington Williams authored the two-volume “History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880”

David DeWittby David DeWit

On the first floor inside the limestone edifice of the Ohio Statehouse sits the George Washington Williams Memorial Room, adorned with two oil paintings and a large, bronze bust of Ohio’s first Black lawmaker: George Washington Williams, who served 1880-81, in Ohio’s 64th General Assembly.

A soldier, Baptist minister, lawyer, politician, and journalist, Williams accomplished perhaps his most remarkable achievement when he authored the first academic history of Black people in America from their own perspective — the two-volume, “History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens.”

The volumes were published in 1882 and 1883 following Williams’ term in the Statehouse. In 1888, he published, “A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861–1865.”

A deeply impressive autodidact, Williams says in the introduction to his history that he retired from public duties to focus on completion of the work, consulting more than 12,000 volumes, with more than a thousand of them included in its bibliography. He exhausted the state library of Ohio before moving on to the Library of Congress and New York Historical Society, and traveling southward to interview Black veterans for first-hand accounts when his inquirers of formal sources were rebuffed.

“I have been possessed of a painful sense of the vastness of my work from first to last,” Williams wrote, adding that he conceived the work to give America more correct ideas about the nature of Black people and to inspire Black people in their efforts of citizenship by giving them the history of their people so many desired. “The single reason that there was no history of the Negro race would have been a sufficient reason for writing one.”

Williams makes clear that his aim of the book is an honest and truthful discussion of history: “Not as the blind panegyrist of my race, nor as the partisan apologist, but from a love for ‘the truth of history’ I have striven to record the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Williams wrote. “I commit this work to the public, white and black, to the friends and foes of the Negro, in the hope that the obsolete antagonisms which grew out of the relation of master and slave may speedily sink as storms beneath the horizon.”

Nearly a century-and-a-half later, America is beset by know-nothings and philistines intent on subverting and destroying the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about our collective American history. They project their personal inability to face unpleasant facts onto our society and education system at-large — to decree that they somehow are the arbiters of what knowledge the public is allowed to learn in our universities and libraries, and what knowledge we are not. Gravely exceeding a governmental assault on free speech — which is quite bad enough, and unconstitutional — they seek to police freedom of thought and expression itself, a despicable insult to our Enlightenment Era intellectual heritage.

The life and work of George Washington Williams

Born free in Pennsylvania, George Washington Williams ran away at 14-years-old to join the Union Army, fighting some of the later battles of the Civil War. In a sort of unofficial defense of the Monroe Doctrine and the forces of democracy, Williams then joined other American soldiers fighting under the Republican Army of Mexico to overthrow Emperor Maximillian. Afterward, Williams returned to America to serve for five years in the U.S. Army before going to college at first Howard University and then the Newton Theological Institution near Boston, becoming their first Black graduate.

Ordained a Baptist minister, Williams served pastoral duties in Boston and then D.C., where with the support of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison he published eight volumes of a Black newspaper called The Commoner. He then moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served as a pastor and studied law under Alfonso Taft and was admitted to the bar. It’s from there he went on to the Ohio Statehouse and then his work as historian. Williams spent his last decade discovering and warning about the horrors of colonization in the Congo and Sierra Leone before dying of tuberculosis in the United Kingdom in 1891. He was 41 years old.

Williams’ history of Black Americans begins from his Christian ministerial perspective: Painstakingly debunking the 19th Century propaganda that used the Bible to attempt to dehumanize Black people with scripture. He then traces the history and etymology of the term “Negro” itself and where it comes from and who it’s been used to describe, before overviewing colonization and then finally reaching 1619 itself, which marks the beginnings of race-based chattel slavery in America.

In his first volume, Williams then studiously compares and contrasts the Black experience under the laws in the various colonies and later states, both before and after the American Revolution. His second volume deals with Black American experience in the 19th Century, and — given his veteran experience — is particularly heavy with insight and detail on combat experiences.

For his efforts, W.E.B. DuBois called Williams “the greatest historian of the race” after discovering his work as a Fisk University undergraduate.

In 1883, Williams wrote the editor of the Boston Herald: “I am now earnestly endeavoring to organize an American negro historical society. The negroes of this country are making very credible history now, and it should be preserved. … I have learned by experience the necessity of such an organization.”

So Ohio’s first Black lawmaker, and the first Black author of an academic study of Black American history, was also one of the first, most vocal advocates for preserving, protecting, and sharing Black history.

My personal disgust with ignorant political attempts to whitewash and destroy the Black history movement birthed by Williams is only matched by my commitment to defending it.


Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

– James Baldwin

David DeWitt

Ohio Capital Journal Editor-in-Chief and Columnist David DeWitt has been covering government, politics, and policy in Ohio since 2007, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt


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