The Secret War Of Willis Hodges is an investigative podcast that uncovers previously unknown information about a network of free Black people who worked to help slaves escape from Princess Anne County in the years before the Civil War. It sheds new light on a figure of national importance from Virginia and describes the mechanics of the Underground Railroad in Hampton Roads. The podcast was made possible by support from Virginia Humanities. Join us each week for a new episode. 

The series is on and in the WHRO app. 

Photo by the Library of Virginia.

From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 15, 1868. This is Willis Hodges (bottom center, in eyeglasses) at Virginia's constitutional convention in 1867. A Black political leader from Princess Anne, Hodges said he founded a secret society to help enslaved people in 1842.

Episode 1: The Network
We discover an abolitionist from Hampton Roads who was a close associate of John Brown. His name was Willis Hodges, and he was a free Black man living in Virginia before the Civil War. He formed a secret society in this community to help enslaved people escape. Who were the people in this secret group? The search begins.

Episode 2: The Community
On the hunt for this secret network, we talk to people in Hampton Roads who are descended from the community of free Black people who lived side by side with white slave-owners. One of WHRO's senior producers is related to them.

Episode 3: The Church
The exploration of this network leads WHRO to a church fighting for its survival and to a gravesite of people who died for freedom.

Episode 4: The Escape Routes
The social network of free Black people is key to the mystery, but so is the terrain of Hampton Roads itself. We journey from the Great Dismal Swamp to the port of Norfolk to discover how people escaped from this area.

Episode 5: The Answers
With our understanding of Hodges' life, the social network, and the terrain of Hampton Roads, we can answer some questions about this secret society.

Bonus 1: Sandi Brewster-Walker
Sandi Brewster-Walker is a descendant of Willis Hodges, and an expert on his life. She tells her story.

Bonus 2: Eric 'Mubita' Sheppard
Eric 'Mubita' Sheppard is a descendant of another Black abolitionist who escaped through the Great Dismal Swamp. Sheppard talks to Senior Producer Lisa Godley about the swamp's role in helping enslaved people.

Bonus 3: Daniel Sayers
Daniel Sayers is a professor at American University who discovered evidence of a community living deep within the swamp. He tells us about his work.

Gravestone from the historic Cuffeytown Cemetary in Chesapeake, Virginia. 

C Smith
Photo by Paul Bibeau

A grave at Cuffeytown. More photos are here.

More information on Willis Hodges

Help WHRO uncover a secret society and the Underground Railroad In Virginia

The Secret War of Willis Hodges: The Black political leader who helped enslaved Virginians

Free Man of Color - The autobiography of Willis Hodges online at the Internet Archive

Website with information about Cuffeytown

Virginia Beach's Confederate monument and the election violence of 1878