Jeff Forret – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts”

Matthew Gilmore Discussion
Jeff Forret – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts”


Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts” Cambridge University Press, January 2020.

[CITE: Matthew B. Gilmore ]


  1. Tell us about the book.

Williams’ Gang tells the story of Washington, D.C., slave trader William H. Williams and one particular shipment of enslaved captives whom he purchased out of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond in 1840. These twenty-seven people had all been convicted of capital crimes in Virginia and sentenced to death, but Virginia governors had commuted their sentences to sale and transportation outside the United States. Williams won a bidding war among several slave traders to carry them beyond the boundaries of the country. The enslaved prisoners first journeyed to the Yellow House, Williams’ infamous slave jail in the nation’s capital and the same facility where the kidnapped Solomon Northup (of Twelve Years a Slave) would find himself enchained only months later. Washington was a leading depot in the domestic slave trade, and the Yellow House was, by 1840, the foremost slave jail in the District. It was also a landmark, readily visible from the U.S. Capitol, in an era before presidential monuments and memorials. In October, Williams carried his human cargo coastwise from Alexandria to New Orleans, where the slave dealer was charged with illegally importing convict slaves, contrary to Louisiana law. Williams claimed he was merely passing through Louisiana, en route to the independent slave-holding republic of Texas. There he planned to dispose of his captives, in conformity with Virginia law. But the state of Louisiana confiscated the men and women who made up his cargo, pending the outcome of his trial. Williams’ Gang chronicles the range of William H. Williams’ legal troubles, with a focus on the multiple court cases resulting from this single shipment of enslaved convicts.

  1. What’s your thesis? What is the story arc?

I use the case of the Williams’ gang convicts to argue that the history of black incarceration in this country goes back even further in time than most people realize. While part of the book is a biography of the slave trader, other sections document, to the extent possible, the lives of the enslaved people who made up this one shipment. Their stories, though unusual, expose the variety of carceral institutions that the enslaved were potentially subject to, from local city or county jails, to state penitentiaries, to private slave jails like the Yellow House. The plot of the book weaves their stories in and out of a more or less chronological narrative that chronicles William H. Williams’ emergence as a major slave trader in the Chesapeake, the acquisition and shipment of the enslaved convicts, and his attempts to recover them from the state of Louisiana.

  1. What are the most important influences on your telling of this story?

My previous books were all more strictly academic in nature. They relied heavily on stories about enslaved people’s lived experiences, but all of that material was framed for topical analysis. Williams’ Gang is the first book I’ve written that has a sustained plot, so writing it was a different experience for me, more of a hybrid of scholarship and storytelling. In terms of the existing historical literature, I relied on the works of Ed Baptist, Calvin Schermerhorn, and Josh Rothman to provide a background on the domestic slave trade, the business aspects of it, and the frenzy of the “flush times” prior to the Panic of 1837. Slave law figures prominently in this book as well, so I adopted for Williams’ Gang the same sort of legal and narrative approach one finds in books such as John Ruston Pagan’s Anne Orthwood’s Bastard and John Bailey’s Lost German Slave Girl, both of which I have assigned in my undergraduate survey classes. At the same time, I wanted to make sure the sheer terror of slavery was front and center, so I was mindful of Melton McLaurin’s Celia, a Slave and a lot of the more well known slave narratives from Solomon Northup and others.

  1. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject?

Only a small handful of scholars had ever mentioned William H. Williams or his cargo of enslaved convicts before I started researching and writing the book, and those mentions were brief, so Williams’ Gang doesn’t provide any meaningful corrective in that regard. It does, however, ask us to rethink our ideas about when black people in the United States were subject to incarceration, a point also made recently in Rashauna Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis. We generally think of black imprisonment as a post-Civil War phenomenon: In the absence of the institution of slavery, incarceration became a means of racial and social control. Certainly there is a lot to that argument, but I would contend that the foundations for the later mass incarceration of the black population were already laid long before the Civil War.

  1. What are the classics in field (if any)?

The one, true “classic” work I consulted for Williams’ Gang was Frederic Bancroft’s Slave Trading in the Old South, from 1931. Bancroft knew of Williams and had a couple of sentences in there on him. But Williams’ Gang is far more a product of where the scholarship stands now, as historians look at slave trading as a business and recognize the brutality of slavery as an institution.

  1. What challenges did you face in this research?

I have no real right to complain about the research for Williams’ Gang. It took a lot of travel – to Washington, D.C., Richmond, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Montgomery, Mobile, Boston – but I had some very generous funding, thanks to a William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Grant, an NEH Summer Stipend, and Lamar University. At the same time, I could do a lot of the research online, through and the various newspaper subscriptions I have. That expedited the process a great deal. The real challenge would have been if had tried to write this book twenty-five years ago, before we had all the technology and databases we have now. Perhaps foolishly, I had assumed that the subject was so narrow that it would only take a year or so to research, but with the abundance of resources out there, I kept finding more and more material and coming up with new angles to explore and new sources to track down. Overall I enjoyed the research process and thought of it as more of a mission than as work.

Having said all that, I would identify two challenges. One was trying to uncover the early life of William H. Williams. It turns out that that was a remarkably common name. I found all kinds of William H. Williamses, each just a little worse than the next. And while I was able to discern who was who after about 1830, before that time I drew almost a complete blank. Maybe a professional genealogist will someday fill in the gap. The other big challenge was simply dealing with the emotional toll it all. Researching a book about slave trading forces you to immerse yourself in a sea of immorality and evil and surround yourself by some rather unsavory, despicable characters. You have these moments, again and again, where you just have to shake your head and wonder how people could have done this.

  1. What were the most important resources you found (and where)?

Court records from Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Louisiana form the backbone of Williams’ Gang. The local court records from Virginia are available at the state library in Richmond, filed with the executive papers of the commonwealth’s governors. The National Archives houses the essential court records from the District, and relevant cases in Louisiana are found at the New Orleans Public Library and on the University of New Orleans campus. Many of the necessary sources used in the book – newspapers from across the country, slave manifests from coastwise slave-trading vessels, census records, and congressional records – are available online. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and other slave narratives are in wide circulation. Work on Louisiana law, various legislative reports, and penitentiary records required time in Baton Rouge, at the Louisiana State Archives and on the campus of Louisiana State University. Notarized slave bills of sale involving William H. Williams and his brother and business partner Thomas Williams are available at the New Orleans Notarial Archive, either on microfilm or in big, leather-bound volumes. Other aspects of William H. Williams’ story took me to the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery in an attempt to root out some of his family history, and to the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, where I looked up the credit reports on the Williams brothers’ business operations.

  1. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?

Plenty. First and foremost, I’d have greatly appreciated any other material in the voices of the enslaved people. We hear shards of conversations in the court records and can glean some limited information about their lives, but much more has been lost. Second, the life of William H. Williams is not as well documented as that of other slave traders of his era. There is very little correspondence available regarding either Williams brother, and they left behind no known diaries, account books, or collections of business papers. Court records do mention a ledger book kept by the jailer of the Yellow House, which I would have loved to have located. It reportedly listed the names of each enslaved person committed to the slave jail, the dates of incarceration, and the names of those who deposited the prisoners there. The first volume was already in poor condition by 1843, and the pages including the enslaved convicts were said to have been torn out by that time. Williams’ jailer speculated that children playing in the slave trader’s office were responsible for the destruction. That the ledger went missing the day before Williams’ jailer was to testify at trial about the convict slaves strikes me as suspicious, though, and perhaps no mere coincidence. There is at least a possibility that the pages had been intentionally ripped out to remove evidence detrimental to William H. Williams.

  1. Who is your audience?

I would hope that Williams’ Gang finds multiple audiences. It should particularly appeal to readers interested in the history of slavery, the domestic slave trade, slave law, and southern and antebellum history. The book picks up on many themes, including the relationship between slave trading, banking, and the emerging capitalist economy; the impact of Williams’ slave trading on the presidential election of 1844 and the 1850 abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C.; the 1862 emancipation of enslaved people in the District; the incarceration of enslaved people; and the criminal law of slavery in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Louisiana. Williams’ Gang paints a colorful and dynamic portrait of the business of slave trading, the booms and busts of the Old South’s slave economy, and the national struggle over bondage. The result is a social, economic, and political snapshot of the antebellum era, told through the lens of one slave dealer and one unusual cargo.

  1. Tell us about you.

I am professor of history and Distinguished Faculty Research Fellow at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. After earning my Ph.D. at the University of Delaware, I taught for two years at James Madison University before going to LU, where I’ve been since 2005. I write my books on a laptop, while sitting in an old recliner, with a black cat named Hermione on the footrest and a gray cat named Harry perched on my shoulder. (There are Harry Potter fans in my household.)

  1. What inspired you to write this book?

I fell into this topic completely by accident. While researching a previous book, Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South, I looked into records of the Louisiana State Penitentiary to see if any enslaved prisoners serving time there were doing so for inflicting harm on other enslaved people. Through that process, I compiled a list of more than two hundred enslaved convicts incarcerated in the penitentiary. Ten of these were labeled, in the Board of Control reports, “Williams negroes.” I didn’t understand what that meant, or what crime they had committed, but at that point, regardless of my own curiosity, I was compelled to let the matter slide, since it didn’t seem to have any immediate bearing on the book I was working on at the time. As I continued my research, though, I was at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I stumbled across some penitentiary records for Virginia, which listed the names of enslaved prisoners who were bid upon by slave traders to be carried out of the United States. Some of those names sounded familiar, and they in fact matched up with the names of the enslaved people listed as “Williams negroes” in the Louisiana penitentiary records. Suddenly, I had a group of enslaved convicts whom I knew had served time in the penitentiaries of two different southern states. There obviously had to be a story there, but it wasn’t one that fit into the book I was working on at the time. So once Slave against Slave was written, and I was deciding which book project to tackle next, I turned to this group of enslaved people. I fully committed myself to the research for Williams’ Gang in August 2014.

  1. What’s unique about your perspective?

This is a difficult question to answer. I don’t have any sort of personal relationship to any of the historical figures in the narrative. I’m like any other historian, seeking out all the evidence I can to provide the most complete interpretation of the past that I possibly can. But I do think that my training as a historian of slavery, and my previous experience working with court records and slave law, positioned me well to tackle this story – not merely the biography of the slave trader but the biographies of his enslaved captives as well.

  1. What’s your favorite DC history book?

With no disrespect intended toward anyone else, given my particular field study, I’d give particular nods to Kate Masur’s An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. and Kenneth J. Winkle’s Lincoln’s Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, D.C. I had a lot to learn about D.C. history and found both of those works useful for this project. Some other really interesting scholarship on D.C. has come out recently, but I haven’t gotten those books read yet.

  1. What’s next for you? What are you working on?

The book I’m working on now is tentatively titled Slave Ships to Freedom: Accidental Emancipation and Slave Reparations in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic. It examines four domestic slave trading voyages that either ended in shipwreck or with vessels being blown off course to holdings in the British colonial Atlantic. In all four cases, the British government liberated the enslaved captives on board. The book will examine U.S. efforts to gain compensation for the monetary value of those liberated.

I also have an anthology in the works, co-edited with Bruce Baker, titled The Scoundrels, Shysters, and Confidence Men of Nineteenth-Century Southern Capitalism. If all goes according to plan, it should be out with LSU Press in spring 2021.