“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Brown wrote this down and passed it to a jailer on the morning of his execution, December 2, 1859. The words are among the most famous to come out of the period just before the American Civil War. But Brown was not the first to write that thought. In fact, a close friend of his had expressed the same sentiment at least 10 years before. That friend was Willis Hodges, a free Black man, and abolitionist, from Hampton Roads.

Hodges was a publisher, a political leader, a delegate to the state's constitutional convention and possibly a scout for the Union Army

Historians believe John Brown may have shared the details of his planned raid on Harper's Ferry with Hodges. Just after Brown’s execution, the New York Evening Post published several letters between the two. But that correspondence is incomplete. When she learned of Brown’s arrest, Willis Hodges’ wife promptly burned dozens of other letters Brown had sent to her husband.

What those letters contained is only one in a series of historical mysteries surrounding Hodges, the man the local paper in Norfolk called "one of the most incendiary negroes that has ever cursed this section." In fact, one of the most intriguing historical mysteries of this man’s life is a secret society he founded in Princess Anne County, Virginia in 1842.

Hodges gave away few details about this group.

“I had mapped out quite a program,” he wrote in his autobiography, without adding much more. Hodges' son would later say that his father's program helped two enslaved people escape to Canada. But what was the full extent of the society, and who was involved?

With support from Virginia Humanities, WHRO is engaged in an extensive investigation to map out the social network of free Black families connected to Willis Hodges and search through historical records and contemporary news reports to find clues about how this secret society could have operated, and its connection to the Underground Railroad in Virginia. 

In a previous investigation on an unsolved murder in 1878, WHRO uncovered a network of civil rights activists working with Willis Hodges in Princess Anne. This group existed decades after the secret society, but it's clear that some of the people had deep family roots in the area. 

In addition, census documents help identify free Black families in the area and even give a rough idea of where they lived in relation to each other, to white slaveholders and to Willis Hodges himself.

However, some of the most important information about this network could come from the WHRO community. We want to talk to people who know about, or are related to, free Black families who lived in Princess Anne County in the 1840s. We are particularly interested in discovering more about the Owens, Cuffee, Sparrow, Boush and Fuller families. Please send any tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. More information on this investigation is on this episode of HearSay With Cathy Lewis.

Willis Hodges was a pivotal figure in our history, and his full story has yet to be told. You could help us tell that story.