George Washington Williams is a well-known name to most historians of the black experience in America, but up until now his name was about all we knew about him. We used his name as the first black historian to demonstrate that black history began as a subdiscipline in 1882, not in the 1960s, but we seldom read his history and knew next to nothing about the man himself.

Now John Hope Franklin has changed all that. This dean of Afro-American and southern history has made a hobby of collecting information on Williams for the last 40 years, while publishing other major works and receiving every honor the American historical profession can bestow. Beginning in 1945 with less than a dozen letters and a hasty reading of Williams' African diary, which has since disappeared, Franklin has painstakingly gathered the pieces of evidence from three continents and, like an archeologist, reconstructed a mosaic that is astonishingly lifelike. Williams seems less attractive than a cultural hero should be, for Franklin paints him warts and all. Franklin also sheds light on the black communities of Boston, Cincinnati and Washington, on King Leopold's Congo Free State and on the social and cultural history of black Americans in the post-Civil War generation.

The introduction is a fascinating account of Franklin's "stalking" of George Washington Williams, but let us turn to the odyssey of Williams himself. Born free in 1849, but growing up in poverty and neglect, Williams joined the Union Army at 14, fought in some of the closing battles of the war, deserted, joined the Mexican army and then the U.S. Army again until a bullet in his lung ended his military service, at the rank of sergeant. Later in life he allowed himself to be called colonel, his rank in the Grand Army of the Republic.

Williams, always a quick study, somehow bypassed college and, after four years at Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, graduated abreast of his class in 1874 and into the Baptist ministry. Almost at once he became pastor of a leading black church in Boston, and within a little more than a year he increased its membership, wrote a book-length history of the church, married and became a community leader. He cast aside this budding career to launch a black newspaper in Washington, which failed financially after only eight weekly issues. Undaunted, he secured the pastorate of a black church in Cincinnati. Once again, he was an instant success and a mover and shaker, and again he sought other adventures. He wrote a column from the black perspective in a Cincinnati daily, studied law in the office of Alphonso Taft, passed his bar exam and served one term in the state legislature. There Williams showed his usual brilliance, but lost the support of his black constituency when he sponsored a bill desired by a wealthy white patron to close a Cincinnati black cemetery as a nuisance.

Williams gave as his reason for not seeking reelection, which may have been the real one, that he wanted to devote his time to historical research. After two years of feverish research and writing, he published his two-volume "History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880," which bore the marks of haste and amateurism but was a remarkable intellectual achievement that countered white stereotypes and omissions and put him on the national lecture circuit. Five years later he produced a more deeply researched history of black troops in the Civil War.

Though history would seem to be his forte, Williams became restless for other careers and other climes. He moved to Boston, to Washington, to Europe, abandoned his family and unsuccessfully sought a divorce. He wrote an unperformed play and a novel of interracial romance, rejected by white publishers and serialized in a black newspaper only up to its climax. He secured an 11th-hour appointment as minister to Haiti from President Arthur and wasted months trying to goad the incoming President Cleveland into honoring it. He spent much time and energy on an unsuccessful effort to get Congress to finance a statue commemorating the black soldiers of the Civil War.

For years in the 1880s he sought a meaningful role for himself and other Afro-Americans in Africa, then undergoing colonial division by the European powers, and finally secured the backing of Collis P. Huntington for a survey of a possible Congo railroad. He journeyed for some six months through the interior of Africa, up the Congo and across to East Africa. In addition to a report on the proposed Congo railway, the journey resulted in a published "Open Letter" to King Leopold of Belgium indicting his Congo Free State for inhumane treatment of its African subjects. Though widely discounted at the time, Williams' assessment was borne out by the Congo scandal a decade later. Contracting tuberculosis in Africa, Williams died in England at the age of 42 in the arms of an Englishwoman with whom he had had a shipboard romance.

Franklin does not neglect the high adventure of Williams' life, but he also uses it to illuminate the society, black and white, in which Williams moved. He is too good a historian to exaggerate the virtues of his subject. The last sentence of the book reads: "Williams was one of the small heroes of this world; but it is well that one should not try to make more of him than what he was -- a flawed but brilliant human being."