Events in the Life of William J. Wilson

A Timeline

Instructions: This timeline lists events in the life of writer and activist William Joseph Wilson. His life offers a window into the African American activist and intellectual communities in the decades immediately before and after the U.S. Civil War. Click on the highlighted words in the timeline to explore the context for each of the listed events, as described in the print media of Wilson's era. Then, follow the highlighted images and passages for a deeper exploration of the people and places of Wilson's world.


William Joseph Wilson is born into a family of oyster harvesters in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

(Source: The Practice of Citizensip: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United Sates, by Derrick R. Spires, page 131)


Wilson moves his boot-making business to 15 Ann Street, adjacent to Manhattan’s Theater Alley.

(Source: The Colored American, 16 September 1837)


Wilson becomes the Principal of Colored School No. 1 in Brooklyn, following the departure of Mr. Augustus Washington, the previous Principal, first for Dartmouth College, where he was only the tenth Black student admitted since the school's opening, in 1769.

(Source: Brooklyn Evening Star, 17 January 1863)


In it's annual prospectus, the editors of Frederick Douglass' Paper boast that they count among their regular contributors several of the, “most cultivated colored citizens of the United States,” including William J. Wilson, and fellow correspondents William J. Watkins, Dr. James McCune Smith, Professor George Boyer Vashon, John Mercer Langston, and John I. Gaines.

(Source: Frederick Douglass' Paper: 8 December 1845.


Wilson becomes a founding member of the American League of Colored Labourers.

(Source: The North Star, 13 June 1850)


Under Wilson’s leadership, enrollment at Brooklyn’s Colored School, No.1 has reached 300 registered students, with 200 in regular attendance.

(Source: The North Star, 17 April 1851)


On December 11 of this year, Wilson’s first column, “From Our Brooklyn Correspondent,” appears in Frederick Douglass’ Paper. (Source Frederick Douglass Paper, 11 December 1851)


Wilson is nominated to serve on the New York State Council of the National Council of Colored People.

(Source: Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 28 October 1853)


Wilson publishes his final column as “Ethiop,” the Brooklyn Correspondent for Frederick Douglass Paper.

(Source: Frederick Douglass Paper, 7 December 1855)


Wilson publishes "The Afric-American Picture Gallery" in seven installments in the Anglo-African Magazine, published by New York journalist and activist Thomas Hamilton. The "Picture Gallery" describes a leisurely stroll through a gallery exhibition of African American art, including the narrators observations of both the art and the African American viewers for whom the art is displayed.

(Source: Anglo-African Magazine, Vol. 1, 1859)


Camp Barker is established in Washington, D.C. as a so-called contraband camp for newly freed African Americans fleeing the states of the Confederacy.

(Source: Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital)


On January 5, Wilson delivers a speech as part of a special event held at the Cooper Institution to commemorate Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

(Source: National Anti-Slavery Standard, 10 January 1863)


Wilson travels to Washington, D.C. making his first trip to the South. He shares his experiences in this hub for African American migration from the war-torn south in a series of five letters to the Anglo-African Magazine, spanning from 29 August 1863 to 10 October 1863.

(Source: “Where all eyes are turned: Letters from Washington in The Anglo-African, 1863-1864” by R.J. Weir)


Wilson, his wife Mary and his daugher Annie, relocate to Washington, D.C. Though his correspondence and other writings give little explanation of his reasons for this step, historian R.J. Weir notes that, “Wilson traveled south weeks after a mob had ripped through the streets of his home city and targeted black New Yorkers and their property. During and after the New York Draft Riots, Wilson must have feared for his family, friends, pupils and livelihood."

(Source: : “Where all eyes are turned: Letters from Washington in The Anglo-African, 1863-1864” by R.J. Weir)


Wilson, along with his wife Mary, begins teaching at the school at Camp Barker. Wilson directs the school, which eventually comes under the administration of the American Missionary Association (AMA).

(Source: His Truth is Marching On: African Americans Who Taught the Freedmen for the American Missionary Association, 1861-1877 by Clara Merritt DeBoer)


Wilson accepts post as instructor and head of the Third Street School, also administered by the AMA.

(Source: His Truth is Marching On: African Americans Who Taught the Freedmen for the American Missionary Association, 1861-1877 by Clara Merritt DeBoer)


Wilson is named cashier of the charter branch of the Freedman's Bank, located in Washington, D.C.

(Source: Anecdotes of Public Men by John Forney)


Wilson’s work as Freedman’s Bank cashier and his responsibilities as a community leader and activist leave little time for his work as a school head and classroom instructor, and he steps down from his post at the Third Street School.(Source: His Truth is Marching On: African Americans Who Taught the Freedmen for the American Missionary Association, 1861-1877)


Prominent abolitionist and author William Wells Brown visits Wilson at the Freedman’s Bank.

(Source: Anti-Slavery Standard, 18 Feburary 1867)


On March 15 of this year, William J. Wilson is elected a trustee of Howard University. (Source: Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867-1967)


Wilson serves as a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men, held in Washington, DC., on Wednesday, 13 August.

(Source: National Anti-Slavery Standard)


Wilson’s daughter Annie marries Thomas S. Boston, an assistant cashier at the Freedman’s Bank.

(Source: Archive of Washington, D.C. Marriage Certificates; U.S. City Directory, Washington, D.C., page 29, 1871)


The Freedman’s Bank fails due to mismanagement, risky investment of bank assets, primarily by white bank managers, and resulting distrust and flight by African American despositors.

(Source: The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran)


Testimony given before the House Select Committee on the Freedmen's Bank, on Wednesday, January 27 of this year reveals a pattern of financial misdeads my teller and assistant cashier Thomas S. Boston, Wilson's son-in-law. Boston used a series of forged checks to draw money from the account of at least one bank depositor. Investigators testify that the embezzlement took place primarily in 1874, shortly before the bank's failure.

(Source: Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives for the First Session of the Forty-Fourth Congress, 1875-'76' )


Howard University Board of Trustees places on record a memorial of their character and service for John H. Cook and William J. Wilson, who died since the previous meeting of the Board.

(Source: National Republican, 30 June 1879)