Remembering Reverend Annie Rebecca Woodbey

Protesters gather in Omaha, Nebraska to protest the killing of George Floyd. (Aspects and Angles/Shutterstock)

The leading Black member of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) in the first decade of the twentieth century, Rev. George Washington Woodbey is largely remembered today thanks to the efforts of historian Philip S. Foner. However, in recovering his legacy as an important early Black socialist, Foner said nothing about his first wife, Annie Rebecca Woodbey, despite George Woodbey himself referencing her by name in his 1904 booklet, The Bible and Socialism: A Conversation Between Two Preachers, which Foner republished. When Rev. Woodbey introduced his plan to read from “a lecture delivered by the late Rev. Annie R. Woodbey” to illustrate and conclude his arguments on “What the Prophets Said of Economic Conditions in Other Nations,” his mother’s pastor replied, “I have heard of her, and would be glad to hear it.”

Although her life continues to be overlooked even in recent discussions of her husband’s socialism, in the 1880s Rev. Annie R. Woodbey’s name became well known in Nebraska, Kansas, and even nationally due to her popularity as an orator and her involvement in the Prohibition Party of Nebraska. A remarkable preacher, intellectual, activist, and political leader in her own right, she deserves to be remembered. Doing so not only challenges the simplistic, and largely inaccurate biographical narrative discussions of her husband, but should foster a deeper historical appreciation of African American women’s political and intellectual lives in the late nineteenth century. Borrowing Brian Kwoba’s insightful remarks on Hubert Harrison, remembering Annie Woodbey “requires us to reframe and expand multiple histories” of the movements and ideas she and her husband participated in and shaped.

Annie Rebecca Goodin was born in 1855 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. According to census records, her father was born in Maryland and her mother in Virginia. Soon after her birth, Annie’s parents fled the United States for Canada. Young Annie spent most of her childhood in Canada and Michigan, where she attended schools and acquired some formal education. By the early 1870s she was living in Kansas, where she met George Washington Woodbey while accompanying her father to preach to formerly enslaved migrants near Emporia. Born enslaved in 1854 near what is today Mountain City, Tennessee, George Woodbey didn’t arrive in Kansas until around 1870. Shortly after the Civil War he attended classes in a “log shanty” schoolhouse his father helped organize in Johnson City, Tennessee, where his mother was an “organic member of the Baptist church” and the family lived and farmed on rented land. Not long after moving to Kansas, his father’s death forced George to leave school and work.

According to a biography published in 1895, young Annie Goodin “began her career as a speaker when yet a child on religious and historical subjects.” George Woodbey first witnessed her skillful oratory while attending her lectures. Impressed  by her intellect and beauty, they forged a deep bond over shared intellectual interests, their love of oratory, and faith. They married in 1873 in a congregation led by her father today known as St. James Baptist Church. Edwina Buckner, daughter of two founding members, described the congregation as sharing a “deep religious faith that was born out of slavery and oppression.”1

The Woodbeys moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1876 to organize what is today known as the Calvary Baptist Church. Mrs. Woodbey took charge of the church’s Sunday school. Leaving Wichita after a few years, they preached briefly in Atchison, Kansas, and St. Joseph, Missouri, before moving to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1883, where George Woodbey served as the first pastor of what is now Omaha’s Mount Zion Baptist Church. Annie Woodbey regularly filled “the pulpit for her husband during his absence,” and preached at Mount Pisgah Baptist. In the mid-1890s, the Black-owned newspaper The Enterprise reported her leading the Ebenezer Baptist Mission in South Omaha as its pastor in church announcements.

Rev. Annie Woodbey’s reputation as an orator spread based on her 1883 lecture, “The Existence of God.” Nebraska and Kansas newspapers published favorable reviews and positive commentary appeared in T. Thomas Fortune’s widely read New York Globe on June 21, 1884. The Hartford Call reported the lecture was meant “to raise funds to enable her to go to Africa as a missionary.” She and her husband shared a deep interest in Africa, and the Emporia Weekly News published rumors they organized “a movement” involving “a large number of colored people” to emigrate to Liberia. In 1884 the New York Globe published a letter from her husband defending Liberian emigration in which he declared, “Let the Negro scatter out, go to Africa, come to the West, or go anywhere else . . . And let those who want to stay, stay. There is plenty to be done here.” The Woodbeys themselves ultimately remained in the US.

Portrait photograph of Annie Rebecca Woodbey, n.d. Private collection. Courtesy of Josephine Woodbey Carlock.

Mrs. Woodbey was the first African American woman in Nebraska to join the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1885. Her temperance activism had roots in the abolitionist movement, and after Reconstruction Black temperance activists waged war against “the liquor traffic” using anti-slavery rhetoric. At its state convention in 1886 she spoke from the same stage as Frances E. Willard and was elected Nebraska’s statewide superintendent for “Colored Work.” Other early African American WCTU members Lucy Thurman and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper worked to establish a national “Department for Colored Work” to challenge racism within the organization and to develop Black women leadership. Through the WCTU Annie Woodbey also fought for women’s suffrage and spoke in 1891 before the Nebraska Woman’s Suffrage Association convention in Hastings, Nebraska. The Women’s Tribune commented on the notable “interest manifested by the colored women” in suffrage activism Woodbey reported.

In 1885 the WCTU rented Boyd’s Opera House in Omaha for an event and provided Annie’s husband an entry ticket, but the manager refused him entry. Omaha’s African American community responded by organizing protest meetings and supporting a lawsuit against the theater, an effort which prefigured the strategic plans and civil rights organizing envisioned by T. Thomas Fortune in his call for a National Afro-American League, which Mrs. Woodbey and her husband joined a few years later. Nebraska’s first Afro-American League state convention only allowed women as guests. She attended its second convention as a delegate at large and the convention voted to welcome women to “the league on an equal footing.”

Annie Woodbey’s WCTU activism facilitated her support for the Prohibition Party in the mid-1880s, and she and her husband quickly became party leaders, serving as delegates to the Nebraska state convention in 1888. While tempting to caricature the Woodbeys as zealous conservatives for supporting prohibition, they embraced a more radical philosophy of temperance. The Prohibitionists endorsed universal suffrage at its founding convention in 1869 and until 1896, its platforms included support for other progressive and radical reforms. Temperance has historically grown in opposition to economic exploitation and colonial rule, according to historian Mark Lawrence Schrad, and “was a weapon of the weak against imperialism, against predatory capitalism, and against an autocratic state that promoted and profited from ordinary people’s subordination to an addictive substance.”

Annie Woodbey made history in 1895 as Nebraska Prohibitionists nominated her to run for Nebraska University Regent, becoming the first African American woman nominated for statewide office in the US. She supported a broad reform agenda including an eight-hour day, equal pay for equal work, public ownership of land, transportation and communication industries, universal public education, abolition of convict leasing and an end to “mob law.” When the Prohitbitionists adopted a single-issue platform in 1896, she and her husband “bolted” to organize a new “National Liberty Party,” hoping to build a mass-based reform party.

In 1895, Annie Woodbey helped found the Woman’s Club of Omaha, a “nonsectarian” organization focused on reform and philanthropy, which hoped “to stimulate intellectual development . . . [and] promote unity and good fellowship amongst its members.” In 1897 Mrs. Woodbey served as club vice-president and statewide organizer. Increasingly outspoken on questions of class and economic oppression, one of her last reported public lectures was on “social economics” before the “Colored Woman’s club of South Omaha” in early December 1900.

Whether she joined her husband as he began speaking explicitly for socialism around Omaha in early 1901 remains unknown. She passed away on April 27, 1901. The Omaha World Herald attributed her death to “stomach trouble” in a pitifully brief announcement published under the headline, “Pastor Woodbey’s Wife Dies.”

More than a preacher’s wife, Rev. Annie Rebecca Woodbey was herself a preacher, intellectual, and activist who along with other African American women suffragists, preachers, civil rights activists, and radical intellectuals must be remembered. Scholars need to acknowledge and take seriously her unquestionable influence on her husband’s socialist political thought and commitments as she was his closest intellectual and political collaborator, if not comrade. Remembering her also allows us to more accurately remember their contributions to Black communities, organizing, and political ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Finally, her life should encourage further engagement with Black women intellectuals as vital to the making  and remaking of history.

  1. In an unpublished two volume book of handwritten poetry he composed in 1877, dedicated to his “affectionate wife and companion in the great struggle of life,”  George W. Woodbey expresses how he  first admired Annie Goodin from a distance while attending her lectures, intimidated by her intellect, beauty, and her father.  Edwina Buckner’s oral history of St. James is found in St. James Baptist Church 120th Anniversary (Emporia, KS: 1992). Lyon County Historical Center and Historical Society. I am grateful to William Boyer, the Lyon County Research and Archives librarian, who located this source for me in 2019 after I made an unannounced visit to Emporia.
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Charles Holm

Charles Holm is an independent researcher based in northeast Nebraska. He earned his PhD in African and African Diaspora Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2021. He is currently working on a biography of George Washington Woodbey.