George W. Woodbey

George Washington Woodbey (October 5, 1854 - 1920s?) was an influential African-American minister, author and Socialist. He wrote several influential papers about Socialism and African Americans, ministered in churches in the Midwestern United States and California, and served as the sole Black delegate to the Socialist Party of America conventions in 1904 and 1908.[1]

Biography

Woodbey was born into slavery in Johnson County, Tennessee, to Charles and Rachel Woodbey. Little is known about his childhood, though it is reported that he learned to read at a young age. Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Woodbey made his way to Emporia, Kansas and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1874. He ministered in churches in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.[2][3]

Woodbey became active in the Republican Party and by the 1880s became interested in social reform. In Omaha he joined the Prohibition Party and ran on their ticket for Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska in 1890. He was Nebraska’s Prohibition Party’s candidate for Congress in 1894.[2]

In the 1900 Presidential campaigns, Woodbey supported the Democratic and Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. During this period Woodbey became familiar with the ideas of Eugene Debs, a labor organizer and five-time Socialist candidate for President. The Democratic Party invited Woodbey to deliver speeches, but then cut him off because he was too strongly Socialist.

Woodbey became a member of the Socialist Party. He never took the Socialist Party to task on the question of race, even after his own nomination for Vice Presidential candidate was met with only one vote. Woodbey believed the Socialist Party could help solve racial problems in the United States because of its emphasis on economic changes to the system. He promoted the causes of socialism across California and was recognized as one of the great socialist orators of the time. His ability to bring his message to the common man made him a reputation on the streets. On one occasion, Woodbey was denied access to a restaurant due to his race. He turned the situation around by putting together a successful boycott of the restaurant and hotel with the help of socialist comrades.[4]

In 1902 Woodbey moved to San Diego, where he was pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He served on the executive board of the Socialist Party of California, and traveled around the state in his work. He believed that the socialist message of helping the poor was consistent with his Christian beliefs.[5]

Because of the inflammatory nature of his message, Woodbey was in and out of jail for several years. In 1905, after one particular incident, the police hospitalized the orator. He organized a protest and went to the county jail to lodge a formal complaint. His complaint was met by being physically thrown from the building. Woodbey would then press charges of assault and battery on the officer. The case was taken to court and a jury found the defendant not guilty. The verdict was not what Woodbey was looking for, but it gave him an unexpected boost with the community. The event also allowed him to demonize the police as shills for the capitalist machine.[6]

According to one biographer, there is no record of Woodbey or his activities after 1915;[7] however, an article by Woodbey was printed in a Chicago publication in 1909. He was said to have been active in California as late as 1923.[5]

Legacy

No one tried to estimate how many people Woodbey brought to the Socialist movement, but party organizers agreed that he did more for the cause in the beginning of the 20th century than any other leader. Reverend George W. Slater, Jr. credited Woodbey for his conversion and understanding of Socialism. Slater took the mantle of Socialism from Woodbey and continued to teach and preach his message as a disciple of the Socialist movement.[8]

Bibliography

Woodbey penned several pamphlets on socialism. They included:

  • "What To Do And How To Do It, or Socialism vs. Capitalism," Waylands Monthly. 40. Republished in Harris, L., Pratt, S.L. and Waters, A. (2002) American Philosophies: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing. p 412-417.
  • "The Bible and Socialism in 1904."
  • (1910) "The Distribution of Wealth."

References

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