Willis Augustus Hodges: Early Fighter for Peace and Justice in Williamsburgh
Willis Augustus Hodges was born into a free black family in 1815 in Virginia. After this state denied voting rights and foisted other restrictions on free blacks, Hodges brought his family to Williamsburg (when it was spelled with an ‘h’ and before it merged into Brooklyn), NY.
In his autobiography, “A Free Man of Color”, Hodges noted in the late 1830’s there was but one abolitionist society in New York in which he and his brother were the only members of color. He didn’t waste any time in standing up for his people’s right to freedom and swiftly became one of the most outspoken abolitionists in New York. By 1840 he founded “The Ram’s Horn”, an abolitionist weekly periodical that Frederick Douglass and John Brown caught inspiration from. Douglass and Brown also contributed articles and funds to “The Ram’s Horn”. The newspaper ended publication in 1846, but Hodges continued to let his voice be heard.
“Hodges was a Williamsburg radical abolitionist, but a very strategic and level-headed one,” states educator David Dobosz, who is well versed in North Brooklyn history.
He also had other kettles on the fire in his roles as a grocer (owning one of the dozen stores in business at the time), an educator, and an Underground Railroad agent. In the case of the latter, his son said his father sheltered fugitives at his Loon Lake cabin. It is also a theory that Harriet Tubman used the school Hodges founded for fellow free African Americans on Union Avenue and Ten Eyck as a stop on her freedom road. Alas this cannot be proven due to the necessary secrecy of Tubman’s enterprise.
Hodges also helped escaping African Americans establish homes via Gerritt Smith’s land grants, which gave 3,000 free black New Yorkers 40 acres. Hodges urged black urban residents to settle on rural farms as an antidote to what he saw as the complacency of black Northerners brought on by city living ( he somewhat pointed a finger at those in New York City).
He served as a delegate from Williamsburg to the 1848 National Convention of Colored Men held in Troy, New York. He returned to Virginia after the Civil War where he became the first African American elected to office in Princess Anne County. He represented the Republican Party, and in 1876 when the Democrats regained control of his district he moved back to New York, where he would spend his last days until his death in 1890.