George Washington Williams

A Biography

George Washington Williams

Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 20 b&w photographs Published: September 1998

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, History > U.S. History

In George Washington Williams, John Hope Franklin reconstructs the life of the controversial, self-made black intellectual who wrote the first history of African Americans in the United States. Awarded the Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize, this book traces Franklin’s forty-year quest for Williams’s story, a story largely lost to history until this volume was first published in 1985. The result, part biography and part social history, is a unique consideration of a pioneering historian by his most distinguished successor.
Williams, who lived from 1849 to 1891, had a remarkable career as soldier, minister, journalist, lawyer, politician, freelance diplomat, and African traveler, as well as a historian. While Franklin reveals the accomplishments of this neglected figure and emphasizes the racism that curtailed Williams’s many talents, he also highlights the personal weaknesses that damaged Williams’s relationships and career. Williams led the way in presenting African American history accurately through the use of oral history and archival research, sought to legitimize it as a field of historical study, and spoke out in support of an American Negro Historical Society and as a critic of European imperialism in Africa. He also became erratic and faithless to his family and creditors and died at the age of forty-one, destitute and alienated from family and friends. George Washington Williams is nothing less than a classic biography of a brilliant though flawed individual whose History of the Negro Race in America remains a landmark in African American history and American intellectual history.


“[A]n informative and fascinating story of a ‘brilliant though flawed individual’ whose History of the Negro Race in America remains a landmark in African American history.” — Sage Race Relations Abstracts

“[A]n invaluable contribution to American Studies. . . .” — Saër Maty Bâ , European Journal of American Culture

“[T]his reprint of John Hope Franklin’s sympathetic and yet critical biography of the controversial life of George Washington Williams is indeed timely. . . . [It] is an important and engaging book. Franklin does not merely bring an important and largely ignored figure to our attention, but in exploring the historical opportunities and dilemmas for black American activist-intellectualism with warmth and a critical perspective, draws an insight into the historical emergence of Pan-Africanism and black American historiography, and contemporary understandings of the role of the intellectual within struggles for radical social transformation.” — Brett St. Louis , Ethnic and Racial Studies

“A major publishing event.” — Robert A. Hill , Chicago Tribune

“A superb biography.” — Denise Dennis , Philadelphia Inquirer

“Mr. Franklin’s quest . . . offers a unique view of the historian as detective as well as scholar. . . . Fascinating and engaging reading.” — Ira Berlin , New York Times Book Review

"[A]n exemplary, fascinating piece of scholarship. . . ." — Brian Ward , TLS

“An extraordinary accomplishment . . . a model biography. . . .” — John W. Blassingame

“In the historiography of African Americans, Williams stands not only as a pioneer, but as an author whose work has held its value. The conjunction of these two giants makes Franklin on Williams a work of enduring worth.” — Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol


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John Hope Franklin is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. His numerous publications include The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, Reconstruction After the Civil War, and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Ante-bellum North. In 1997, his best-known book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, celebrated its 30th anniversary. Recently, Franklin was named chairman of the advisory board for One America, President Clinton’s Initiative on Race.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2164-4
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