Willis Hodges’s Long Search for Justice

In observance of Black History Month, Penn Press is thrilled to share a blog post from Christopher James Bonner, author of Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship. Published in 2020, the book chronicles the various ways African Americans from a wide range of social positions throughout the North attempted to give meaning to American citizenship over the course of the nineteenth century.

In his adolescence, Willis Augustus Hodges must have spent many evenings with a sense of foreboding, worried about the violence that might be visited upon his family once he fell asleep. Hodges was born free in Virginia in 1815. His parents owned property there, but faced the threat of white supremacist violence in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. White Virginians terrorized Black families in an effort to make the United States a white man’s republic. Hodges spent the next decades using a variety of political strategies to ensure that he and other Black people could belong in his native country and to change the legal terms of their lives.

Hodges fled southern violence, settling in New York in the 1830s. But when he realized how limited economic and political opportunities were for Black northerners, he threw himself into the world of activism, attending abolitionist lectures, reading African American newspapers, and attending Black conventions. The Black conventions were meetings held across the North beginning in the 1830s: people discussed the inequalities they faced, then tried to agree on public statements and other strategies to demand change. Hodges and other delegates at New York’s 1840 convention criticized the state’s racist laws, including a measure that required Black men to own $250 worth of real estate in order to vote.  

In 1841, Hodges began encouraging African Americans to leave New York City and to build new communities upstate. He believed that acquiring land of their own would free them from the economic struggles of the city and offer a path to political power, including the right to vote. Hodges said he was “convinced that something besides ‘speechifying’ … had to be done if we wanted our rights.” He held a series of promotional meetings, joined with eight Black families, and left Brooklyn, settling on forty acres in the Adirondack Mountains in 1848.

These Black migrants made their homes on land provided by the wealthy white abolitionist Gerritt Smith. Smith offered land upstate to 3,000 African Americans, hoping the grants would help them meet the property qualification for voting and would convince white Americans that slavery was immoral. Any Black person between the ages of 21 and 60 who did not already own land and was not a “drunkard” could receive up to 60 acres. Smith expressed serious concerns about drinking among Black New Yorkers, worrying that it could disrupt his political project. “Vain, and worse than vain, will be my grant of land to a drunkard,” he wrote. Black recruiters calling for settlers announced “the grant to you is free, untrammeled, unconditional.” But the grant was not at all unconditional. Gerrit Smith was convinced that Black people needed moral guidance, and his offer of land insisted that they walk the narrow path of temperance to the ballot box.

Willis Hodges chose that path. He made his home in Franklin County, and while he lived there he was elected to the position of Town Collector. Settling on the Smith lands allowed him to experience a direct form of government engagement and affirmed his belonging in the state and the nation. Hodges’s story thus reflects Black politics in action. His move upstate points to the importance of formal political power and the routes Black people could travel to attain it. In Franklin County, Hodges insisted that Black people had a place in the United States.

But it is important to remember that his path to power was peculiar and narrow. Most African Americans were not born free or educated, and few had the funds to relocate to New York and then move again upstate. Rare opportunities allowed Hodges to gain formal political power. Further, his life was constrained by a property requirement that forced him upstate to acquire land and a moralizing benefactor who imposed temperance as a condition for suffrage. Hodges’s belonging was conditional. Jumping the high hurdle that New York placed on the path to Black voting did not confront the racial inequality at the heart of the law. Instead, when Hodges moved upstate and renounced alcohol, he assumed the burden of his Blackness and urged others to do the same, to navigate the world under the legal and cultural weight of racism. His story reflects the hard truth that for Black people, gaining rights has not always advanced freedom or secured equality. Willis Hodges traveled a long way from Virginia to the Adirondacks, from southern terror to northern opportunity, but that road was stony, and that opportunity was not justice.

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