Born into slavery on a plantation in Tennessee, George Washington Woodbey was largely self-educated and as young man supported himself as a miner and factory worker before becoming an ordained minister in 1874, and pastoring churches in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. By the mid-1880s Woodbey, a riveting and eloquent public speaker, had adopted the cause of social reform in America. He was Nebraska’s Prohibition Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor in 1890 and was the party’s candidate for Congress in 1894. Woodbey later bolted the Prohibition Party to endorse William Jennings Bryan of the Populist People’s Party in Bryan’s failed 1896 presidential campaign.
By the turn of the century Woodbey had become a committed socialist and allied himself with Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party. So impressed with Woodbey’s ability to captivate and inform crowds on the street corners of Omaha, A.W. Ricker, chief editorial writer for the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, as well as Ricker’s associates, were of the opinion that “Comrade Woodbey is the greatest of living negro in America.”
Upon relocating to San Diego, California in 1902, where he pastored Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Woodbey became one of the region’s most respected socialists. Woodbey preached the cause of socialism across the state until at least 1923 and on several occasions was physically assaulted and jailed as a result. He publicly challenged the strategy of racial improvement advocated by Booker T. Washington, who Woodbey believed was a tool of exploitive capitalists. He also wrote three widely read booklets and asserted his brand of Christian socialism–defending the poor against the rich– as consistent with the most revered teachings of the church. Woodbey served on the executive board of the Socialist Party of California.