Willis Augustus Hodges

Willis Augustus Hodges [Feb. 12, 1815-Sept. 24, 1890] was a politician, minister, journalist and activist from the Blackwater area of what is today Virginia Beach. Hodges became the first Black person from Princess Anne County to hold elective office during Reconstruction.

Hodges served in the Virginia state constitutional convention from 1967 to 1868 and he was elected in 1870 to the Princess Anne County Board of Supervisors as a supervisor representing the magisterial district of Kempsville. He was reelected in 1872, and he was elected as a justice of the peace in 1874.

Hodges had been born a free person in Blackwater in 1815, and he worked as a laborer prior to the war. After leaving Virginia, Hodges associated with abolitionists such as John Brown and engaged in journalism in New York, according to historian Stephen Mansfield.

He returned to Virginia in 1844, but was accused of preaching antislavery sermons and, along with his brother, Charles Hodges, was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. They were released and there was no charge, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. In 1845, he returned to New York due to “harassment from local whites.”

In an autobiography written in the late 1840s while in New York, Hodges described his early life in “Tidewater, Virginia” — and how whites acted violently toward and intimidated free Black people in order to control them. From 1847 to 1849, he was part of a partnership that published The Ram’s Horn, an anti-slavery newspaper in New York.

Hodges returned to Virginia during the war, and supported Union forces in their efforts locally, according to author Kenneth Harris. Hodges opened a school and was active in Republican Party politics.

His selection to represent Princess Anne County in the state constitutional convention came during the first election in which Black people were allowed to vote in Virginia. Hodges defeated a candidate who was white.

In 1870, Hodges became the first Black person to serve as keeper of the Cape Henry Lighthouse.

From an engraving of a working session of the constitutional convention published in the February 15, 1868, edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. [University of Virginia]


Sources:

  • Harris, Kenneth, Princess Anne County, Virginia: Its Contributions and Sacrifices to the War Between the States [2010].
  • Hodges, Willis Augustus, The Autobiography of Willis Augustus Hodges, a Free Man of Color [1896, as excerpted by the National Humanities Center]
  • Mansfield, Stephen S., Princess Anne County and Virginia Beach: A Pictorial History [1989]
  • Tarter, Brent, The Dictionary of Virginia Biography, “Willis A. Hodges” [Accessed Aug. 30 via Encyclopedia Virginia]

The Independent News