Williamsburg’s Forgotten Great Abolitionist Editor: Willis Hodges
Last week I spoke about Brooklyn’s great poet Walt Whitman who served as the editor of Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Daily News in the late 1850s, but I also mentioned the name of another important Williamsburg newspaper editor whom few in the audience had ever heard of. With the 200th birthday of Whitman approaching in May, Brooklynites are celebrating the author of “Leaves of Grass” and the one-time editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle , however, African-American editor and abolitionist Willis Hodges was an equally amazing character whose life and unique achievements deserve recognition.
If it were not true, Willis Hodges’ amazing life would seem contrived. Born free to unenslaved African-American parents in Virginia in 1815, Hodges learned to read and write at a time when many whites were illiterate and only a handful of African-Americans could read and write. The family prospered, living on a huge farm, but Nat Turner’s rebellion cast a shadow over the Hodges family when his older brother was falsely accused of and imprisoned for abetting Tuner in his slave revolt. Hodges’ older brother escaped the jail and headed to Canada, so When Incensed whites took vengeance on Hodges’ family, nearly blinding his mother and killing all the family livestock, Hodges knew he had to leave Virginia.
Willis arrived in Williamsburg in 1836. He soon bought land, becoming a deacon in a local black church and also one of the founders of Colored School #2 in Williamsburg where black children were taught to read and write. Willis also quickly joined the local abolitionist movement and became a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.
Angered by a pro-slavery editorial in a New York newspaper, Hodges paid to print a rebuttal, but his article was stuck in the back of the paper where no one would see it. When he confronted the publisher, the man told Hodges to start his own newspaper which he did, starting publishing the weekly Ram’s Horn in 1840, which features articles by Fredrick Douglass and John Brown, the future leader of the unsuccessful attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal. Douglass urged Hodges to “blow away” on his horn, predicting that its “wild, rough, uncultivated notes may grate on the ear of the refined,” but would “be pleasurable to the slave, and terrible to the slaveholder.”
Hodges and Brown became good friends, even living together for a time upstate. It is entirely likely that Hodges knew about Brown’s plans to foment a slave rebellion before the attack on Harper’s Ferry. It is quite likely that Brown pleaded with Hodges to join him in the raid, but we will never know because as soon as Brown was arrested Hodges burned all of his correspondence with Brown.
During the Civil War Hodges disappeared from Brooklyn and there is speculation that he served the Union Army as a scout. At the end of the war, Hodges returned to his birthplace and was chosen to represent Virginia at the constitutional convention of 1867-1868, which marked the “first time [blacks] sat alongside whites as lawmakers,”] both in Virginia and throughout the occupied south. Hodges’ leading role at the convention singled him out for attacks in the pro-confederate southern press, which was openly hostile to African Americans taking part in Reconstruction.
Aligning himself with the Radical Republicans, Hodges supported the enfranchisement of blacks, demanded the disenfranchisement of former Confederates, and sought the racial integration of schools. When Democrats returned to power in Virginia at the end of Reconstruction Hodges returned to Williamsburg where he lived until his death in 1890.
Hodges published his autobiography chronicling his unique African-American story, which he dedicated to the free blacks of the south. It still makes fascinating reading. Hodges home and store on S. 5th Street was demolished to construct the Williamsburg Bridge, so the physical evidence of his time in Williamsburg is gone, but his important legacy as a writer and abolitionist lives on and should be remembered during Black History Month.