Historians shed light on first African American lighthouse keeper for Cape Henry: prominent abolitionist Willis Augustus Hodges

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Willis Augustus Hodges isn’t a name found in most history books, but local historians argue it should be.

If you visit the Cape Henry Lighthouse, you’ll see his photo in the lobby. Hodges was the first African American lighthouse keeper for Cape Henry. He was also a prominent abolitionist, a newspaper publisher, a minister and even a spy.

Hodges was born a free man in Blackwater, Virginia, what is present-day Virginia Beach. He wrote an autobiography called “Free Man of Color” in 1848. The book wasn’t published until 1896. Historians learned much about his younger days from the publication.

Hodges’ parents hired a white tutor to teach their older children to read and write. The older children then taught the younger ones, ensuring each child in the Hodges family was literate.

Hodges dedicated his life to helping African Americans.

He was run out of Virginia and made his way to New York. There he founded an abolitionist newspaper in Brooklyn called the Rams Horn. The editor of the paper was none other than Fredrick Douglas. The few surviving pages of the paper are kept in the Library of Congress.

According to Hodges’ great-great-granddaughter, while in New York he lived next door to John Brown, another famous abolitionist who led the raid at Harper’s Ferry. A surviving letter dated 1848 from Brown to Hodges shows the two worked closely together to help freed slaves.

There’s evidence Hodges helped slaves escape from Princess Anne County to the north through the Underground Railroad.

During the Civil War, Hodges went back to Virginia, working as a Union spy.

“He did not join the military because he was better as a spy because he knew the area,” explained Edna Hendrix, a local historian.

After the war, Hodges went into politics. He was the first African American elected to office in Princess Anne County.

He spent a short two-month stint as the keeper of the Cape Henry Lighthouse.

“Although he was only lighthouse keeper here for two months, his story stretches way beyond that and we’re lucky to have that tie to him,” said Sachi Carlson with Preservation Virginia, the nonprofit that runs the lighthouse.

Carlson is the site coordinator for the Cape Henry Lighthouses. She’s currently working on putting together an exhibit at the site to showcase Hodges’ impressive life.

Historian Edna Hendrix included Hodges in her book on local African American history.

“He was a powerhouse and we need to recognize him in our history and let everyone know who Willis Augustus Hodges was and that he is our hero,” said Hendrix.

Hendrix said so much of local African American history has been forgotten. But it is still there.

“Dig into your history, learn your history so that you can be proud of it. Because there is a proud history there. It just has not been told,” Hendrix said.

You can learn more about Hodges by visiting the Cape Henry Lighthouse.

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