Memory  /  Retrieval

George Washington Williams’ "History of the Negro Race in America" (1882–83)

A work of millennial scope by a self-taught African-American historian.

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I was surprised and delighted to find that the historical memorials of the Negro were so abundant, and so creditable to him . . . I became convinced that a history of the colored people in America was required, because of the amply historically trustworthy material at hand.

That passionate study led to the 1882–83 publication of the two-volume History. Divided into three major parts, “Preliminary Considerations”, “Slavery in the Colonies”, and “The Negro During the Revolution”, the first volume actually begins far before 1619, with the Book of Genesis (a historical bound that speaks to Williams’ encyclopedic vision). The initial chapter of the book is thus more biblical history than scientific, calling on theological studies to counter popular dehumanizing theories about Black people based on scriptural arguments. Next comes “The Negro in the Light of Philology, Ethnology, and Egyptology”, which moves forward some centuries, tracing ethnographic and linguistic understandings of whom is referred to with the term “Negro”. Williams continues onward with geographic and historical overviews of various West African tribes and societies. Unfortunately, this first part is Williams’ most creatively non-factual, full of imaginative language that reads more like an adventure tale than historical study, as seen in this excerpt about battles between the English colonial army and the Ashanti:

All the native and British forces were compelled to retire to the forth; while the Ashantee troops, inspired by the dashing bearing of their new king, closed in around them like tongues of steel. . . . The screams of fainting women and terrified children, the groans of the dying, and the bitter imprecations of desperate combatant,- a mingling medley - swelled the great diapason of noisy battle.

History of the Negro Race in America evens out once we reach the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans in the Virginia colony, and the first volume’s latter parts are bolstered by the author’s ability to more directly access primary sources and references. He delves into legal and legislative rulings around slavery and freedom in each of the twelve colonies, comparing and contrasting the situations for enslaved people before the American Revolutionary War. His second volume, published a few months after the first, kicks off with “Negroes in the Army and Navy” at the start of the nineteenth century and continues through the Civil War into Reconstruction, concluding with a “Retrospection and Prospection” on the “Negro Power of Endurance”.