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Woodson, George Henry
(December 15, 1865–July 7, 1933)

–lawyer, politician, and activist—was born in Wytheville, Virginia, three days before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. His father, George, a farm laborer, and his mother, Lena, a homemaker, were two of the nearly four million African Americans who benefited from the abolition of slavery in the United States. Thus young George grew up hearing firsthand stories from his parents about American slavery, which probably contributed to his lifelong commitment to justice and equal rights.

    Woodson's first career choice was the military. He enlisted in Company I of the 25th Infantry in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 11, 1883, claiming to be 21 years old. Five years later, in June 1888, he earned an honorable discharge as a private at Fort Missoula, Montana. He then returned to Virginia and enrolled in the Virginia Normal & Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). Two years later he earned a bachelor's degree. In 1895 he graduated from the Howard University Law School.

    By February 1896 he had opened a law office in Muchakinock, a company-owned coal-mining town in Mahaska County, Iowa. By October 1901 he had formed a legal partnership with S. Joe Brown, a State University of Iowa Phi Beta Kappa and Law School graduate. Their partnership lasted for 20 years. In 1921 Woodson moved to Des Moines to serve as deputy collector of customs, a sinecure he held until his death 10 days after suffering a stroke in July 1933. He left a widow, Mary Montague, from Missouri, whom he had married in 1922. They had no children. Yet George H. Woodson "fathered" an entire generation of attorneys and several notable civil rights organizations during his 37-year legal career in Iowa.

    The first of these was the Iowa Chapter of the Afro-American Council, which he and others founded in 1900. Two years later he issued a call to all African American attorneys in Iowa to meet in Des Moines to establish the Iowa Negro Bar Association. In 1905 Wood-son answered W. E. B. DuBois's call to the "Talented Tenth" to found an all-black national civil rights organization. Hence, Woodson became one of "the Original 29" members of the Niagara Movement, which advocated full civil rights for African Americans and was a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ten years later Woodson followed DuBois into the NAACP, becoming one of the charter members of the Des Moines Branch. In 1925 he and other attorneys founded the National Bar Association in Des Moines; Woodson's leadership was recognized with his election as its first president. In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge appointed him to head the commission to investigate conditions in the Virgin Islands. That same year he lost one eye during a successful operation to remove a tumor.

    Woodson also "fathered" the Republican Party among African Americans in Iowa in the sense that after moving to the state in 1896, he seemed to become the party's black leader almost overnight. In June 1898 he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Mahaska County Attorney, and an attempt to win the Republican nomination for a seat in the Iowa House met a similar fate a year later. Yet Woodson remained a much sought-after speaker, especially during presidential campaigns. In 1900 he posed the rhetorical question, "How shall we as a race get our equal rights?" He answered by declaring, "I believe that our advancement... should come in conventions."He also believed that "we should own land... and stop swarming to the cities like flies."His politics were unapologetically partisan: "Full citizenship for the race is impossible without suffrage, and the constitutional amendments urged by Democrats and only Democrats for the disfranchisement of our people in the southland are dampers to our inspiration and deathblows to our progress. No people who love liberty can safely support a party or a plan pledged to the abrogation of their civil rights."Economically, Woodson was more pragmatic. To his question, "Is the Afro-American justified in affiliating with organized labor?" he answered, "Much depends upon the labor organizations; but a negro should never lose an opportunity to affiliate and fraternize where he can make for himself a friend and secure for the race a lasting benefit."Such spirited speeches earned him a seat at the 1901 Republican State Convention; a 1912 nomination to the state legislature, the first for an African American in Iowa history; and the appointments noted above. But Woodson's achievements seem to have been about advancing African Americans rather than self-aggrandizement, for he lived modestly throughout his life, and when he died, he left a legacy of legal action and achievement rather than a large material estate.
Sources There is no known collection of Woodson's papers, but his correspondence with Iowa's notable Republican politicians, such as Albert B. Cummins, appears in their papers. John Zeller of Des Moines has a list of articles about Woodson in the Iowa Bystander and Des Moines Register; and Susan Carle, law professor at American University, has material about Woodson, including a copy of a scrapbook found by Dorothy Schwieder of Iowa State University. See also Bill Silag et al., eds., Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838–2000 (2001).
Contributor: Hal S. Chase