Willis Augustus Hodges was born on February 12, 1815, in Princess Anne County and was the son of Charles Augustus 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. He also arranged for private tutors to teach his children how to read and write, although in the case of Willis Hodges the tutoring lasted only a few months. Hodges boasted during the convention that one of his grandfathers had fought under the command of Generalduring the American Revolution (1775–1783). His younger brother Charles E. Hodges and his nephew both later served in the House of Delegates.
Willis Hodges’s older brother William Johnson Hodges may have employed his ability to write to forge free papers for enslaved people and in 1829 he was convicted of forgery. William Johnson Hodges escaped from jail and eventually settled in Brooklyn, New York, which led their father to send Willis Hodges there to look for suitable farm land to buy in order to move the family away from the violence to which both free and enslaved African Americans were vulnerable. Not liking the land he inspected in New York and disappointed by how free African Americans were treated there, Hodges recommended to his father that the family remain in Virginia and he returned to Princess Anne County.
He worked for a time as a laborer on the Dismal Swamp Canal, where he was disgusted by the violence against African American laborers and resolved to return to New York. Before leaving, in March 1836 Hodges registered as a free man in order to have documentation of his status. His registration recorded that he was five feet, six and a half inches tall, had a light complexion, bushy hair, and a scar above his left eye. Hodges moved back to Brooklyn, where for a time he lived with and operated a grocery with his brother. He sought to improve his reading and writing skills with antislavery tracts and newspapers. In 1837 he was baptized at the Abyssinian Baptist church and later ministered at a local church. By 1840 Hodges purchased a farm in Williamsburgh (later part of Brooklyn). The following year he spearheaded the establishment of a school there and was a founder of a local Union Temperance Benevolent Society. Early in the 1840s he attended conventions of African Americans in Albany, Troy, Utica, and Syracuse.
Hodges still visited Virginia for extended stays and on one occasion in June 1838 he had purchased for one dollar a 100-acre farm from his father. Following his father’s death, Hodges returned to Virginia in January 1844 with the intention of settling permanently and running the family farm. Hodges’s hostility to slavery was well-known in Princess Anne County and in December he was accused of preaching antislavery sermons. He and his brother Charles E. Hodges were arrested for disturbing the peace, but for lack of evidence the county court discharged them without a trial.
Harassment from local whites spurred him to leave Virginia once again in February 1845. He moved back to Brooklyn, survived an attack of smallpox, and in 1847 formed a partnership with Thomas Van Rensselaer to found a weekly antislavery newspaper, the Ram’s Horn. Hodges raised the money by whitewashing houses. Their partnership lasted about eighteen months, but only one issue of the paper survives. During that time and because of the newspaper Hodges attracted the favorable attention of abolitionist John Brown, with whom he became friends and exchanged letters. During the 1840s and 1850s Hodges and his brother William Johnson Hodges also participated in African American political organizations.
Following the dissolution of the Ram’s Horn partnership Hodges moved to an antislavery settlement abolitionist Gerrit Smith supported in Franklin County, New York, near the Canadian border. Hodges lived there for about five years and probably participated in helping people who escaped from slavery flee to freedom in Canada. He also wrote an autobiography and dated it February 12, 1849, his thirty-fourth birthday. Hodges married Sarah Ann Corprew Gray, in New York in 1853. She had been born into slavery in Princess Anne County but was a free widow at the time of their marriage. They initially lived in Brooklyn and had at least two sons and two daughters. In 1854 he was ordained a minister in the Apostolic Church of New York.
Hodges may have known in advance about John Brown’s plan to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, and if so he might have approved. Long before then Hodges had concluded that because enslaved people could not always count on sympathetic white people, it was the right and duty of African Americans to fight for their freedom. He returned to Virginia once or twice during the Civil War and may have guided U.S. troops in the counties of Princess Anne and Norfolk (later the city of Chesapeake). He and his brother Charles E. Hodges organized a meeting in the latter’s Brooklyn church in August 1864 to protest a plan to bring freed women and children to New York because they were to be employed as servants. Sent to Norfolk in September 1864 to investigate the issue, Hodges was appalled by the poor condition of the former slaves and worked to improve their situation, but military leaders soon ordered him to leave the city.
Convention of 1867–1868
It is unclear exactly when Hodges moved back to Virginia permanently. William Johnson Hodges preceded him and with his radical antislavery reputation was elected the first president of the Colored Monitor Union Club of Norfolk in February 1865. In the summer of 1867 Willis Hodges successfully applied to the army’s Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (generally known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) for permission to open a school in Princess Anne County and also became active in Republican Party politics. He was a vice president of the April and August 1867 state conventions of radical Republicans and attended the December 1867 party convention. On October 22, 1867, in the first election in which African Americans voted in the state, Hodges won election to represent Princess Anne County in the convention called to write a new constitution for Virginia. He received 807 votes, all from African Americans. His nearest competitor, a white man, received 609 votes, all but 1 from white men.
The convention met in the Capitol in Richmond from December 3, 1867, through April 17, 1868. Hodges was undoubtedly the most widely known of the twenty-four African American members. Few or none of the others was well-known outside his local community or in the communities in free states where a few of them had lived. That is almost certainly why the illustration of the convention in session in the Capitol that was published in the nationally circulated Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on February 15, 1868, featured Hodges front and center, facing the illustrator and with his back toward the convention floor. The image clearly shows the prominent eye glasses he then wore. Newspaper reports often referred to him then and thereafter as Specs Hodges or Old Specs Hodges, and they sometimes confused him with his brother William Johnson Hodges and incorrectly stated that the convention delegate was a convicted felon.
The incomplete official record of the debates, which abruptly ends on January 29, 1868, discloses that Hodges was one of the most active and vocal of the African American members. He voted for all the radical democratic reforms the delegates included in the new constitution. Hodges served on the Committee on Education and the Funds Relating Thereto, which reported the draft of Article VIII that required the General Assembly to create the state’s first system of free public schools for all children. He voted for a motion to prohibit racial segregation in the new schools, but it failed to pass.
Hodges repeatedly demanded equal treatment for all citizens of Virginia regardless of race, but he denounced former Confederates and voted to ban them from voting and holding office, in part because he believed that some of them had cheated poor freedmen or tried to prevent them from voting for radical Republican candidates for the convention. He also spoke on behalf of tax laws that freedmen could easily understand and tax rates they could afford to pay. During discussions of the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Hodges acknowledged that some bureau agents had done good work but that others had abused freedpeople. “I think the only and the true way in which we can benefit these people,” he explained in January, “is to go to work here and make a good Constitution as quick as we can, giving everybody equal rights, and giving provision in that Constitution by which the State shall take care of her own people. When we have adopted that Constitution then we can take away this Freedmen’s Bureau. It is odious to me, and I am sorry that such a thing is necessary. The quicker we can get rid of it the better I will be pleased.” Hodges also introduced a resolution, which did not pass, that he hoped would benefit poor and landless people, “That all woodland, swamps, marshes, creeks, rivers, lakes and bays in this State shall be free for all persons to hunt, gun or fish on or in, as the case may be, provided they do not destroy any private property in so doing.”
In December 1878 following a disturbance on election day, Hodges and another man were arrested, but they agreed to leave the state if the charges were dropped. He resided for a few years in Brooklyn and was active in Republican politics, but sometime in the 1880s he moved back to Virginia. Hodges died of heart failure on September 24, 1890, reportedly in Norfolk but perhaps at his residence in nearby Princess Anne County. The place of his burial is not recorded.