"I can see the hand of God all through my whole life up to this very minute. I wish to give credit to whom credit is due." — Roberta Anna Morgan Webb
Roberta Anna Morgan Webb was born to Goings and Helen Wilder Morgan on January 7, 1889, in the deeply segregated rural farm community of Raleigh, North Carolina. Webb grew up hearing "slave stories" about her family and the inhumane experiences that they suffered through and survived. One story that stood out to her was about her enslaved maternal grandfather Wilder, who had somehow learned to read. It was on the foundation of this story of resistance and resilience that Webb developed a love for learning and answered the call to teach, preach and become a social justice advocate.
In celebration of Women's History Month, let us remember Webb. She was a Black Mennonite trailblazer.
Webb was educated in North Carolina, in a small schoolhouse for Black children that was established by a White landowner. The schoolchildren's parents supplied resources as they could afford, but most of the families were impoverished and did not have access to adequate learning materials. Webb remembers sharing books with her peers and the joy that it brought her when she had a book of her own to take home and read.
Webb excelled in her studies, and in 1909, she graduated at the top of her class at Hampton (Virginia) Institute, one of the nation's first all-Black colleges. After graduation, she taught at the Hampton Training School and became a certified teacher. Webb maneuvered through the intersections of race, class and gender to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. She taught
Black children in segregated schools in Elkton, Virginia, for two years and later in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for more than 12 years.
In 1915, Webb built a house at 471 Broad Street, in the Northeast Community of Harrisonburg. There, in that historically Black neighborhood, Webb's legend would begin within the Mennonite church.
In 1924, Webb married her husband, John Webb, and they had three beautiful daughters, Ada, Margret and Nancy. She spent many happy years raising her family. However, Webb recognized the growing need for working mothers to have a safe place to take their children while they were at work. She cared deeply about the social disparities of the children in her neighborhood and the needs of working women.
In February 1938, Webb established Harrisonburg's first childcare center in her home, saying, "I saw a great need in the community, and my life goal is to be as helpful as I can possibly be." In 1943, Webb became the first African American member of Broad Street Mennonite Church, where she was warmly known as "Sister Webb." Webb continued to use her voice to speak up against injustices and advocated for those that were marginalized in the community and the church.
On Dec. 5, 1947, Webb wrote a letter which was read by Rosalie Wyse at Scottdale Mennonite Church on Dec. 14, 1947. The theme for the evening program was racial prejudice within the mission church communities:
Greetings in His Name. Thank you for your inquiry regarding our racial problems here. One of the first steps to solving a problem, to me, is to recognize the fact that the problem exists. Yes, we have several phases of racial prejudice here, which, if not wiped out, will, in time, undermine the very foundations of our democracy and, which is more important, shake our Faith in the very Maker whom you are seemingly so anxious to have us serve."
Webb died at the age of 101 on Dec. 20, 1990. She was the first African American to reside at Oak Lea Nursing Home in the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community.
In 1994, Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, established the Roberta Webb Child Care Center to honor and continue her rich legacy of empowering and educating children. Their mission is to "serve ethnically diverse families by providing quality and affordable childcare."
As we celebrate Women's History Month, let us remember Webb. Let us acknowledge the many challenging social and systemic barriers that she learned to overcome as a Black woman. Let us tell her story of resilience and let her legacy live on.
Editor's note: Resources for this story were culled from a special archives file on Roberta Morgan Webb at Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.