Hodges was born between 1800 and 1804 in Princess Anne County and was the son of Charles A. Hodges and his second wife, Julia Nelson Willis Hodges, both free African Americans of mixed-race ancestry. The Hodges family was one of the more prosperous of the numerous free black families in Princess Anne County (later the city of Virginia Beach). Hodges’s father purchased three farms and his own father’s freedom, and he sent Johnson Hodges, as he was often known, to Norfolk to learn how to read and write. Hodges’s younger brotherserved in the Convention of 1867–1868, and his younger brother and his son John Q. Hodges both served in the House of Delegates.
Religious like other members of his family, Hodges began speaking at Baptist meetings when he was a young man. Rumors circulated that he employed his ability to write to create false free papers to allow enslaved people to escape or move freely about. Hodges was arrested for altering a sum of money on a bill somebody hired him to prepare or copy and was convicted of forgery in the Norfolk County Court in April 1829. The jury sentenced him to five years in prison. A few days later Hodges and five other convicted men made a daring escape from the county jail. A published description of him at the time described him as light-skinned and about five feet, seven or eight inches tall. He and another free African American, Samuel Cuffee, eluded authorities and fled to Canada; about two years later Hodges settled in New York. Sometime in the 1830s he married or entered into a common law marriage with a white woman of whom little is known other than that she was born in England and was named Mary (surname unknown). They had at least one son and one daughter, both of whom a census enumerator listed as white in 1900. Hodges had an older daughter born in Virginia about 1836, but it is unclear whether her mother was the same woman.
In New York
Hodges operated a grocery store for several years and saved enough money to buy land in Williamsburgh, which later became part of Brooklyn, and built a house there. For a time in the 1830s his parents joined them, and his brother Willis A. Hodges also lived in Brooklyn off and on from the 1830s to the 1860s. Their brother Charles E. Hodges, together with his family, and their mother also joined them in 1851, all having left Virginia under threat of violence or death.
Late in 1842 Hodges was indicted for conspiring with two men who lodged in his house to set it on fire to collect the insurance, but they were all acquitted. Hodges resumed his role as a Baptist minister, although about that time he affiliated briefly with the Millerites, a sect that believed in the imminent second coming of Christ and forecast the end of the world. He also took part when possible in antislavery work. Hodges and his brother Willis signed a petition to the U.S. House of Representatives late in 1841 against a standing rule that prohibited reception of antislavery petitions. That same year Hodges named his son after the congressman and former president John Quincy Adams, who was then conducting a heroic marathon campaign against the so-called gag rule. Hodges attended the national convention of African Americans in Philadelphia in October 1855. Able by then to vote under New York law, he was the founding president in 1854 of the Colored Political Association of Kings County, was president in 1857 of the New York Free Suffrage Association, and during the presidential campaign of 1860 was active among African Americans who supported Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln.
In August 1862 Hodges announced that he was returning to Virginia to work for the educational and economic advancement of poor African Americans. A brief biographical account of his life printed at the time in the Brooklyn Times and in the Brooklyn Evening Star seriously exaggerated the extent of his family’s Virginia property holdings but accurately reported that during his residence in Brooklyn he had acquired considerable property and founded a church and a school. The account also stated that he had a son who was a lawyer and serving in the army, but insofar as official records indicate, that was not accurate. Hodges’s son served in the army later in the war, and his wife died before the end of the war.
Political Work in Virginia
Hodges settled near Norfolk, where in February 1865 he was the founding president of the Colored Monitor Union Club. It organized African Americans politically and arranged for some of them to try to vote in a May election. Most officers of election refused to receive their votes, and others refused to report the votes. In June African Americans in Norfolk issued a long address to the citizens of the United States that eloquently demanded full citizenship rights and suffrage for freed men. Hodges was not the author of the address, nor did he preside at the May and June meetings. In September of that year he applied to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (generally known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) for permission to open a school at Deep Creek, in Norfolk County, but he had very unfavorably impressed the local bureau agent, who refused. No record evidently survives of precisely what Hodges had said or done to alienate the agent. In recommending against aid to the school, Agent Thomas P. Jackson described Hodges as “a troublesome designing, unprincipled man” and though a Baptist minister “a worthless, mischievous, incendiary character.” In October Jackson nevertheless endorsed an appeal from a group of Norfolk County African Americans represented by Hodges and members of the Cuffee family to obtain land, apply to the American Missionary Association for assistance, and open a school for black children. Like his son John Q. Hodges, he acted as an agent in Norfolk assisting people with claims against the federal government that arose from the army’s long presence there during the war or who had dealings with the Freedmen’s Bureau.
He soon had the first of several more encounters with the law. The widow of James Cuffee charged in 1866 that Hodges had exhibited in court a document that he falsely claimed as her husband’s will and obtained administration of his estate. The court ruled that the will Hodges had presented was not genuine. Hodges’s name does not appear in newspaper reports or in the official congressional investigation of a riot that took place in Norfolk in April 1866, which suggests that he was not present on the occasion. In October Hodges was arrested and sent to the state penitentiary in Richmond to serve the five-year term for forgery to which he had been sentenced in 1829. Freedmen’s Bureau officials assisted him early in 1867 by applying to the governor for a pardon for his 1829 conviction in order that Hodges could legally register to vote later that year for members of a constitutional convention. The governor pardoned “Johnson Hodges (colored)” on February 27, 1867. It is not clear whether public officials always understood that the names Johnson Hodges and William J. Hodges referred to the same person. In the Cuffee suit he is described as “Wm. J. Hodges alias Johnson Hodges.” Hodges’s incarceration was almost certainly the reason why references made in Richmond to his brother Willis A. Hodges then and later sometimes identified him as a convicted felon, an evident confusion of the two men.
On February 14, 1866, Hodges had married Emily Tucker, whose Norfolk County family had been free before the war and owned a farm of approximately eighty-six-acres. About the time he entered prison, she deeded her inherited one-third interest in the farm to Hodges’s son in order that the earnings from it could support her son and daughter and Hodges’s son, daughter, and a grandson. She died early in March 1867, shortly after Hodges was pardoned and released from prison. Her two brothers and her daughter and son-in-law filed a series of suits against Hodges and his son, in which they charged that Hodges’s wife was not of sound mind and that he had forced her to make her mark on an invalid deed of conveyance. In 1873, six months after Hodges’s death, a jury found that his wife had not been mentally capable of executing a lawful deed.
In May 1867 he spoke before a large gathering of African Americans in Norfolk County on the subject of violence from southern whites, exhorting the audience to support the Union Republican Party of Virginia. On July 19, 1869, the governor appointed Hodges a notary public. When the first local elections under authority of the new constitution took place on May 26, 1870, Hodges won three elections in Butts Road Township—for a three-year term as a justice of the peace and for one-year terms as a member of the county board of supervisors and as superintendent of the poor. Under the new constitution the office of justice of the peace was no longer an influential judicial position but merely a petty magistrate. Hodges moved out of the township not long thereafter and consequently forfeited his seat on the board of supervisors and probably his office as justice of the peace. The men who had guaranteed his bond as superintendent of the poor having little or no property, and he being unable to secure substitutes, the county court deprived him of that position in May 1871.
Hodges resided with members of the Cuffee family in 1870. He soon ran into trouble with the law again. On February 2, 1871, the Norfolk County Court ordered him arrested, and the grand jury indicted him for grand larceny on February 20 and for perjury the following day. The accusation was that he had submitted a bill payable to a member of the Cuffee family for a coffin for a pauper, but, in fact, somebody else had provided the coffin. Following several delays during which the case was dropped and a new indictment brought, Hodges was tried on May 19, 1871, before a jury of nine white men and three black men, convicted, and fined $100. On May 30 the judge sentenced him to one year in jail. Reporters for the Norfolk Virginian who belittled Hodges during his political and legal problems referred to him at that time and later as Johnsing Hodges, perhaps reflecting a recognized peculiarity of his speech.
Hodges served his year in the county jail and was released on June 4, 1872, but the Norfolk Virginian reported the following day that a deputy U.S. marshal had arrested him on a charge of fraud in collecting pensions. He did not live to stand trial on the federal fraud charge. Hodges died at his home in Norfolk County on September 13, 1872. The place of his burial is not recorded. The author of the report of his death printed in the decidedly unfriendly Norfolk Virginian described him as “the great negro politician of Norfolk county,” as “beyond a doubt the most dangerous of all the negroes in this vicinity,” and rudely predicted that “his loss will be regretted by few, even among his own race.”