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George Washington Williams, King Leopold II, and African American Emigration to the Congo

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Abstract:

Thanks to John Hope Franklin’s brilliant scholarship, the principled opposition of historian George Washington Williams to Leopold II’s regime in the Congo State is well enough known today that his writings are prominently featured in the Norton Critical Edition of Joseph Conrad’s _Heart of Darkness_. The genesis of the Williams’s interest in the Congo is less known and has roots several years before his 1890 voyage, when he worked with a range of figures--from King Leopold II himself to explorer Henry Morton Stanley to railroad magnate Collis Huntington to educator Samuel Chapman Armstrong—to bring African Americans to the Congo. In this capacity he was exploring a possibility that had been under consideration since the founding of Leopold’s International African Association in 1876 at the Brussels Geographic Conference.

Williams’s efforts resulted in a commission from a Belgian company and a recruiting trip to Hampton Institute in Virginia, where, according to Armstrong, Williams “quite stirred our young men by his eloquent appeals to embrace this ‘first opportunity ever offered to American colored men to go to Africa, not because they are not wanted here, but because they are wanted there: to stand on equal footing with European white colonists as pioneers of civilization and destroyers of the slave trade.’” Williams made it clear to Armstrong that his recruiting efforts were more than an economic opportunity: “Please say to the boys that I shall not require them to sail until the first of January, 1890, 269 years after the first slaves landed at Jamestown, and 344 years from the time the Spaniards began the slave-trade to this Continent.” While Williams ultimately traveled alone to the Congo, he continued his appeals until he saw the empire for himself, leading him to explain to President Benjamin Harrison: “Emigration cannot be invited to the Congo for a quarter of a century, and then only educated blacks from the Southern United States, who have health, courage, morals and means. They must come only in small companies, not as laborers, but as landed proprietors.”

By charting the development of efforts by Williams and others to recruit African American laborers for the Congo, my paper will examine the transformation of Williams’s own ideals, and the broader resonance of the Congo for African Americans in the late nineteenth century. An exploration of Williams’s struggles to develop and define a relationship to the Belgian empire against the backdrop of the history of the transatlantic slave trade reveals an African American connection to Africa that is grounded in a global political landscape of emancipation and anti-imperialism.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509080_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Dworkin, Ira. "George Washington Williams, King Leopold II, and African American Emigration to the Congo" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509080_index.html>

APA Citation:

Dworkin, I. "George Washington Williams, King Leopold II, and African American Emigration to the Congo" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509080_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: Thanks to John Hope Franklin’s brilliant scholarship, the principled opposition of historian George Washington Williams to Leopold II’s regime in the Congo State is well enough known today that his writings are prominently featured in the Norton Critical Edition of Joseph Conrad’s _Heart of Darkness_. The genesis of the Williams’s interest in the Congo is less known and has roots several years before his 1890 voyage, when he worked with a range of figures--from King Leopold II himself to explorer Henry Morton Stanley to railroad magnate Collis Huntington to educator Samuel Chapman Armstrong—to bring African Americans to the Congo. In this capacity he was exploring a possibility that had been under consideration since the founding of Leopold’s International African Association in 1876 at the Brussels Geographic Conference.

Williams’s efforts resulted in a commission from a Belgian company and a recruiting trip to Hampton Institute in Virginia, where, according to Armstrong, Williams “quite stirred our young men by his eloquent appeals to embrace this ‘first opportunity ever offered to American colored men to go to Africa, not because they are not wanted here, but because they are wanted there: to stand on equal footing with European white colonists as pioneers of civilization and destroyers of the slave trade.’” Williams made it clear to Armstrong that his recruiting efforts were more than an economic opportunity: “Please say to the boys that I shall not require them to sail until the first of January, 1890, 269 years after the first slaves landed at Jamestown, and 344 years from the time the Spaniards began the slave-trade to this Continent.” While Williams ultimately traveled alone to the Congo, he continued his appeals until he saw the empire for himself, leading him to explain to President Benjamin Harrison: “Emigration cannot be invited to the Congo for a quarter of a century, and then only educated blacks from the Southern United States, who have health, courage, morals and means. They must come only in small companies, not as laborers, but as landed proprietors.”

By charting the development of efforts by Williams and others to recruit African American laborers for the Congo, my paper will examine the transformation of Williams’s own ideals, and the broader resonance of the Congo for African Americans in the late nineteenth century. An exploration of Williams’s struggles to develop and define a relationship to the Belgian empire against the backdrop of the history of the transatlantic slave trade reveals an African American connection to Africa that is grounded in a global political landscape of emancipation and anti-imperialism.


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