James P. Goodwyn was born in the middle of the 1830s reportedly in Petersburg and probably into slavery, although the circumstances of when or how he became free are unknown. The names of his parents are not known. He married Kitty, or Keziah, Jones on September 12, 1865, although they may have married on that date to legalize a previous informal marriage that had no legal protection for enslaved people. They had at least six sons and two daughters who lived beyond childhood. Goodwyn may have worked as a messenger for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in Petersburg in 1865 and 1866; the census enumerator in 1870 identified him as a whitewasher.
Goodwyn, whose surname was sometimes spelled Goodwin, campaigned for Republican candidates in the senatorial district that included Petersburg before the autumn 1873 statewide and legislative elections. In October 1873, Republicans in Petersburg nominated him and a white German immigrant, Godfrey May, for the city’s two seats in the House of Delegates. The evening before the election, partisan crowds of African American men and white men encountered each other on a city street and began shouting at each other and throwing rocks, and on the following night tensions led to more rock throwing, fist fights, and shots fired by white men at African Americans. On election day, November 4, Goodwyn and May defeated two white Conservative Party candidates by margins of about 200 votes and won election to two-year terms. Goodwyn received 2,295 votes, May 2,264.
Goodwyn was appointed to the lowest-ranking seat on the important Committee on Privileges and Elections. During his first weeks as a legislator he dissented from the committee’s recommendation and the House’s determination that Peter K. Jones, an African American elected from Greensville County, was not entitled to his seat because he had not resided in the county for the prescribed three months before the election. Goodwyn introduced his first substantive resolution on March 20, 1874: “Whereas, God is no respecter of persons, Resolved, That ministers of the several churches of the city of Richmond, irrespective of race or color, be invited to open the house with prayer.” The motion died in the Committee on Rules. That spring he supported the unsuccessful campaign of Mark R. DeMortie, an African American businessman and political activist, for the Republican nomination to the Fourth Congressional District’s seat in the House of Representatives.
During the second assembly session early in 1875, Goodwyn unsuccessfully attempted to have the section covering African Americans in the superintendent of public instruction’s annual report referred to the Committee on Propositions and Grievances. His bill to incorporate the Masonic Temple Association of the City of Petersburg passed. On March 30, he joined ten other African American delegates in unsuccessfully opposing the erection of a statue of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Capitol Square, which was installed later that year. Goodwyn also proposed the reintroduction of popular election of judges, which the Constitution of 1851 had provided for but was abolished under the Constitutions of 1864 and 1869. In the 1870s Conservative Party majorities in the General Assembly elected Conservative, not Republican or African American, men to all the state’s trial courts except the petty courts that popularly elected justices of the peace presided over. One of the most important issues that Goodwyn faced during that session was a Conservative proposal to amend the constitution to require payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite for the suffrage in order to make it difficult for poor African Americans to register and vote. He voted against it, but voters later ratified it.
Goodwyn was one of several African American legislators who issued a call in April 1875 for a convention to discuss political and economic issues of concern to African Americans. He did not attend the August convention, and he either did not seek or did not receive the Republican Party nomination that autumn for another term in the House of Delegates.
From about 1879 to 1883, he was the lighthouse keeper at Dutch Gap on the James River, a job he probably got as a patronage reward for his Republican Party loyalty. Sometime after he left that job, Goodwyn, his wife, and their youngest children moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he worked as a porter, or janitor, until about 1910, which was the last year he appeared in the census and in the city directory. The date and place of Goodwyn’s death and burial are not known.