Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America

By Jacob H. Dorn | Go to book overview

3
From Slavery to Socialism: George Washington Woodbey, Black Socialist Preacher

Philip S. Foner

In the Ohio Socialist Bulletin of February 1909, the Reverend Richard Euell, a black minister of Milford, Ohio, published "A Plan to Reach the Negro." The Negro, he wrote, "belongs to the working class and must be taught class consciousness." Blacks could be recruited more rapidly into the Socialist Party if the Socialists would go to them in their churches and point out "the way to freedom and plenty." Most of them had no experience with any organization other than the church and could not think of committing themselves to action except in religious terms. The Bible and even motion pictures about the "Passion Play" could be used effectively to imbue religion with radicalism and convince the black working class of the evils of the capitalist system and the virtues of socialism. 1

The first black socialist to conduct the type of work Reverend Euell recommended was the Reverend George Washington Woodbey (sometimes spelled Woodby). He had already been performing this function for the socialist cause for several years, even before "A Plan to Reach the Negro" was published.

Woodbey, the leading Negro socialist in the first decade of the twentieth century, was born a slave in Johnson County, Tennessee, on 5 October 1854, the son of Charles and Rachel (Wagner) Woodbey. Nothing is known about his early life except that he learned to read after he was freed and was self-educated, except for two terms in a common school, and that his life was one of "hard work and hard study carried on together." A fellow socialist who knew him wrote: "He has worked in mines, factories, on the streets, and at everything which would supply food, clothing and shelter."

Woodbey was ordained a Baptist minister in Emporia, Kansas, in 1874. He was active in the Republican Party in Missouri and Kansas. He was also a leader of the Prohibition Party, and when he moved to Nebraska, he became a prominent force in the prohibition movement in that state. In 1896, Woodbey ran for lieutenant governor and Congress on the Prohibition ticket in Nebraska.

-65-

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