Cover Story: Webb legacy spans 75 years

Members of the Webb family sitting in chairs

From left, Mary E. Webb, Deborah Stephens, Wanda Wilkes, Cheterria Williams and Victor Webb gather at the new Merriam Plaza Library. A meeting room and mural in the library honors the legacy of the Webb family.

By Gerald Hay

A colorful mural amid the new Merriam Plaza Library depicts Alfonso and Mary Webb and their five sons and five daughters.

The Black family lived in South Park, now Merriam. It was an integrated community founded in 1887. Sixty years later, Alfonso and Mary Webb fought against a plan to segregate Black and white pupils between new and old schools. The buildings were unequal in quality.

The couple was among the key plaintiffs in the historic lawsuit against School District No. 90, resulting in a 1949 ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court that “educational facilities of two schools maintained in the same school district must be on a comparable basis at all times in order to give each pupil in the district equal opportunity for a common school education.”

The story may have sounded like ancient times 75 years later, but it’s an important chapter in Johnson County history. The new library includes the Webb Family Meeting Room honoring the legacy of Alfonso and Mary Webb.

As noted in the mural, the couple had 10 children. Six siblings remain. All are pleased about the recognition. “It’s about time,” quipped Victor Webb. “It’s better late than never.”

He is the couple’s youngest son along with five sisters, Wanda Wilkes, Cheterria Williams, Mary E. Webb, Deborah Stephens and Kathleen Gabriel.

Sitting in a row of chairs in a new library preparing to open on March 20, five siblings chatted fondly , ribbed occasionally and sometimes spoke sadly about their upbringing, schooling and early life in South Park.

According to them, both parents were very active in the Black community with about 40 families residing in South Park. Their father was a leader in the Black community. He worked odd jobs before starting his own concrete business. Their mother cleaned and took in laundry for white families in the South Park community . The couple also collected junk and sold scrap metal in helping to make ends meet.

“She had to find a way to feed all these mouths when they were growing up,” Victor Webb said with a smile. “My mom was one of those people behind the scenes making everything happen.”

Alfonso and Mary Webb were at the forefront in confronting the school board of School District No. 90 with plans to segregate students between two schools. All Black pupils were to attend the 70-year -old rundown Walker Elementary School. The new modern school, which opened in 1947, would be used only for white students.

Construction of the new school was funded by a $90,000 bond election with Black residents being taxed to help pay for the new building. As local taxpayers, Alfonso and Mary Webb and other Black families pressed the school board to make improvements to the Walker School.

“After they made the requests, they were completely ignored like they didn’t exist,” Mary E. Webb said.

When the lawsuit was filed in May 1948, two sons, Alfonso Jr. and Harvey, were attending Walker School as first and second graders. They were among the 39 Black students in the Walker Walkout in a yearlong boycott of the school and were also listed as the first plaintiffs in court documents.

Both brothers finished their education at South Park School after the court ruling. The remaining eight siblings also went to South Park School at different periods during their elementary education. In 1949, they were either too young to attend school or not yet born.

The legal challenges in Webb v. School District No. 90 focused on a statute passed in 1879 by the Kansas Legislature to allow first-class cities with populations of 15,000 or more to operate segregated primary schools. Except for high schools in Wyandotte County, secondary schools were not segregated in Kansas.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionally of racial segregation under a “separate but equal” doctrine.

Both laws remained in effect into the 1950s.

The lawsuit had two main legal fronts. South Park was not a first-class community. The two schools in the center of the dispute were far from equal.

Walker School group photo from the mid-1900s

The Walker (School) Walkout students included Alfonso Webb Jr. and his brother Harvey Webb along with 37 other pupils. Corinthian Nutter, upper left, and Hazel McCray-Weddington, upper right, taught the students in homes and other sites during the school

According to Mary E. Webb, her mother was aware of the significance of the ruling, saying: “What we did today was to set the goal for the future. We’re taxed for these schools. We lived three blocks from these schools. Why can’t our kids go to these schools?”

The challenge by the Black families was strongly supported by Esther Brown, a white Jewish woman in Merriam. She heard about the struggle in South Park from her domestic worker, Helen Swan. Alfonso and Mary Webb, Brown and other participants were often subject to racist jeers and veiled threats while challenging the school board and filing the lawsuit.

“There were concerns everywhere,” Mary E. Webb said. “He (her father) had reason to be concerned but he didn’t back down.”

Cheterria Williams recalls one time during a group meeting of Black residents at her parents’ house when they were told “something was going to happen.” Everyone quickly left when a burning cross was reported on Brown’s lawn.

“That still haunts me,” she said, adding: “It makes me feel proud that my father and the community members were willing to put their lives on the line because that was exactly what they were doing. And I’m so proud they had the strength and courage to do that.”

In January 1948, Webb, Brown and Swan also teamed up to organize Johnson County’s first branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Merriam. Alfonso Webb Sr. was chosen as the chapter’s first president.

By organizing a local NAACP branch, the lawsuit plaintiffs could receive financial support and legal aid from the national organization. The NAACP also helped pay for two Black teachers, Corinthian Nutter and Hazel McCray-Weddington, to home-school the Walker Walkout students during the boycott and provided lawyers for the lawsuit. Among several NAACP lawyers who helped argue the Webb’s case was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The issue of segregation per se was not part of Webb v. School District No. 90 ruling as the school facilities were so clearly unequal. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled school segregation by race was unconstitutional.

When the integrated South Park Elementary School began the school year in September 1949, their mother told her children to “go to school and learn,” said Mary Etta Webb.

South Park was annexed by Merriam in 1967. School District No. 90 has been incorporated in the Shawnee Mission School District. The community and school system are not the same from 75 years ago, but there always seems to be challenges in race relations. Finger pointing, name calling and racial violence, locally and nationally, remain in the news.

“That’s still going on,” Mary E. Webb said, citing a recent attack with racial slurs of a Black female student by a white male student at Shawnee Mission East High School.

“We’re working on it,” Victor Webb added. “We’re still a work in progress.”

Alfonso Webb Sr. died in 1989. Mary Webb followed in 2015. Four sons – Alfonso Jr., Harvey, Jim and Quinton – are also deceased.

The remaining family members make their homes in Johnson County or Kansas City. Three sisters – Cheterria Williams, Wanda Wilkes and Mary E. Webb – still reside in the South Park neighborhood of Merriam.

In another footnote in the Webb legacy, Wanda Wilkes’ husband of 61 years, Carl Wilkes, became the first Black mayor elected in Johnson County history. In 2001, he was sworn in as the 10th mayor of Merriam and served two terms. Carl Wilkes died in 2023.

The siblings believe their parents would be humbled, pleased and happy about the mural in the Webb Family Conference Room at the new Merriam Plaza Library. They say they had good role models to follow in life, a family heritage for all generations.

“I think what’s important is that we make them proud of us because they are not here. That we speak for them, and we can be the best representation we can be of everything they have done, and they have done a lot,” Victor Webb said, also noting his four missing older brothers.

“I wish we were all together – all 10 of us right here with our parents because they are getting the recognition that they deserve.”

As he spoke, the tears filling his eyes and slowly rolling down his cheek were louder than his words.