I’ve been on a bit of a John Hope Franklin kick recently, and read a book yesterday of his that I enjoyed a lot.
Starting from very humble beginnings, Williams was at different points a solider in two wars, a pastor at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, the first black state representative in Ohio, an accomplished historian who wrote respected and pioneering histories of black people, a nominated diplomat and a fearless traveler who confronted Belgium’s King Leopold about his country’s treatment of people in the Congo, Williams and his story were largely unknown when the recently deceased Franklin began his studies of him.
Franklin’s purposes are both to recover Williams’ story and to place it squarely in the tradition of mid- to late- nineteenth century America.
As with many of his other works, including his most widely circulated work, From Slavery to Freedom, Franklin’s subject is a critical element of his belief about what constitutes legitimate history.
By writing about Williams, Franklin is making a strong statement both about who should be included in the American story, and, beyond that, that Williams’ personal qualities and actions place him firmly within the mainstream of American life, rather than on the margins.
George Washington Williams includes a recounting of the various chapters in the protagonist’s life, with summarizing analyses and transitions at the end of each chapter.
Franklin does not hesitate to show his subject’s weak points: he often fudged personal details and other facts, for instance. The author assesses these faults by saying they make Williams human, and, in some ways, underscore his remarkable nature and accomplishments.
The book also has a fascinating and unusually personal introduction titled, “Stalking George Washington Williams” that recounts Franlkin’s efforts across many states and countries to learn about this previously ignored man. In a section reminiscent of Alice Walker’s essay about searching for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave in Florida, Franklin describes a similar process with Williams.
Like much of Franklin’s work, George Washington Williams is clearly argued and accessibly written. And, more than some of his other books, this one gave me a sense not only of his subject, but of the times and how Williams reflected, and, to a small degree, shaped them.
I recommend giving it a read.