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Webb Alumni Association Celebrates 50th Anniversary

By Joel Washburn and Jason Martin washburn@mckenziebanner.com
Posted 9/8/20

McKENZIE (September 5) — Members of the Webb (School) Alumni Association are celebrating their 50 anniversary. The usual big Labor Day weekend gathering of alumni, friends and family at the …

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Webb Alumni Association Celebrates 50th Anniversary

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McKENZIE (September 5) — Members of the Webb (School) Alumni Association are celebrating their 50 anniversary. The usual big Labor Day weekend gathering of alumni, friends and family at the former all-black school was limited in number because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no general assemblies, no dances, no fashion shows and no meals. Years of the annual celebration were only a memory.

Members of the Alumni Association did not complain, but rather rejoiced in the fact they were celebrating another year. Many of the historically black high schools in the south were razed through the years. Only a few have the vibrant alumni association to maintain the history and memories. The Jim Crow rules in the South created separate but equal schools, segregating the blacks and whites during their educational experience. Webb School was the lone ‘black’ high school in the county. During the Jim Crow days, up to the mid-1960s, blacks had separate restrooms, separate entrances to buildings, and separate educational facilities.

Neal D. Williamson, and current national president and the Webb Alumni Association and Ike Gilbert, immediate past national alumni president told a bit of the history of the school located on Walnut Avenue in McKenzie.

Neal said Webb School served black students in first to 12th grade, however, there were primary and middle schools for blacks in Wingo, McLemoresville (Dunbar School), Atwood (Barker School), Huntingdon (Hale) and Trezevant (Clay School). The schools in Wingo, McLemoresville, Trezevant and Atwood were consolidated to MTA (McLemoresville, Trezevant, Atwood) in Atwood in the former West Carroll High School adjacent to West Carroll Schools central office.

Ike Gilbert said he lived near Webb School, where he attended first to 12th grade, graduating with the last class before desegregation closed the school. The school was consolidated with the other public schools in the county.

Through Webb’s history in McKenzie, it had a farm for students to work and dorms for some of the teachers and students. The youngest alumni of the school are now in the early 60s. There are no new true alumni, just new honorary members.

This past Saturday, September 5, a few members of the Alumni Association gathered to distribute a 50-year book and to prepare for future events.

The first Alumni weekend was Labor Day, September 4, 1970. Acting General Chairman Roscoe McKenzie became the first National President, an office he held for 22 years. The group organized a General Assembly, wrote and adopted a National Constitution for the organization and obtained a charter from the State of Indiana on August 28, 1972, later acquiring a Certificate of Authorization from the Tennessee Secretary of State, which registered the organization to conduct business in Tennessee.

Prior to 1898, very few records exist on African-American education in the McKenzie area. It is theorized local churches provided the basis of what qualified as an “adequate” education through the segregation laws of Jim Crow and the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) “separate but equal.”

Near the turn of the 20th Century with the introduction of the public school system, a rudimentary one-room school house was constructed on the outskirts of town for “Negro Education.” One teacher was responsible for teaching all the students and the subjects.

The little one-room building evolved into a two-room school about 1900 and provided education from first grade through eighth grade. This addition allowed for an additional teacher. This was the earliest beginnings of formalized African-American education in McKenzie. The building complex was named Booker T. Washington High School. Things would not change considerably for the next 15 to 20 years.

According to Professor Seets, “During this period, the following teachers were employed: Bob Coleman, Nelson Love, F.L. Buck and wife Lena Buck, Murray Mitchum, Rev. L.B. Tinsley. Salaries ranged from $15 to $50 per month and in some cases only room and board.”

In 1920, Professor James L. Seets became principal of the Booker T. Washington school. It was in this time period education took a leap forward for African-Americans in the area. The Carroll County Board of Education built the Carroll County Training School in the Smyrna Community near Buena Vista. After four years, the training school closed and moved to McKenzie to be under the supervision of Professor Seets.

With the acquisition of the training school, Professor Seets began working on an expansion of the facility through the philanthropic endeavors of Julius Rosenwald. The matching monetary grants donated by Rosenwald (approximately $70 million) were used throughout the rural South to improve educational facilities for African-Americans.

The Rosenwald Foundation donated $1,000 to the McKenzie school and the matching $1,000 was quickly raised by authorities and members of the community.

The $2,000 grant led to the construction of four additional rooms.

From Professor Seets records, “The first high school class enrolled four students and at the end of the first four high school years, two of the four, Kelcy Bell and Addie M. Broach, graduated and received high school diplomas from the State Department of Education.”

A need for additional buildings and course expansion forced the school to request more money from the Rosenwald Fund. An additional $8,000 was acquired through the grant and donations.

The name of the school was changed to Webb High School after John L. Webb.

Mr. Webb, an African-American, was a very generous benefactor to the school providing more money than any person of any race or group in McKenzie.

Two school buses were obtained at this point as well, this allowed students to attend from outside the McKenzie area since Webb School was the only high school for African-Americans in Carroll County.

Enrollment increased from four to well over one hundred; teachers increased from one to fifteen; the curriculum was enriched by adding new courses based on the needs of the children.

In the summer of 1936, a fire would destroy the school, and a new facility would be constructed. But it would take the African-American community coming together again to raise Webb School from the ashes.

As school began in 1936, Webb School temporarily moved into the old Masonic Hall which was in need of repairs. Students and faculty made needed improvements as school was conducted for that academic year. Graduation took place at Enon Baptist Church.

While 1936 played out, Professor J.L. Seets and McKenzie Mayor Glen A. King worked behind the scenes to procure the abandoned McTyeire College grounds for the county school.

The former white college preparatory school included five brick buildings on a thirty-acre spread.

Professor Seets, with the help of Z.D. Atkins, used the federally funded National Youth Administration (NYA) program to make the school’s needed repairs.

The NYA was a New Deal agency implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The program operated from 1935 to 1943 as part of the Works Progress Administration. Webb School could use the labor of its students through the NYA program to receive financial help by providing work-study training for high school students.

In order for the NYA program to encompass the school, the curriculum had to change. The altered program of study included building trades that provided finished products such as school furniture, mattresses and book binding. The students followed the learning approach used by John Dewey. With the incorporation of the NYA program and Dewey’s “learner-centered education” the students of Webb School had an educational experience that embraced the intellectual, social, emotional, physical and spiritual growth of the whole child, not just academic growth.

As the curriculum took hold, Webb School had new water and sewer lines connecting to the city lines, doing away with the old dilapidated septic tanks. Soon, needed plastering and interior painting were completed. In addition, school furniture, such as sewing tables, tablet-arm chairs, teacher’s desks, library tables and chairs were provided. The lunch rooms were screened, a recreation field was built, and an auditorium/gymnasium was erected. Running short on bricks for the auditorium, students in their “extra-curricula duties” picked 12,000 pounds of cotton at $1.25 per hundred pound to pay for the needed bricks.

Webb School provided a strong academic education for all of its students. Webb had its own elementary school with five teachers teaching math, health, spelling and music. From the elementary, students graduated to the high school where Professor Seets made sure all the children, boys and girls, were provided courses in Social Studies, English, Math, Home Economics, Agriculture, Music, Science, Cosmetology, Art, Physical Education, Audio Visual Aids, and classes for the mentally challenged.

With 30 acres of land, the Webb School farm was as important to the school as was the physical buildings. According to Professor Seets, “the vocational agriculture program provided the basis boys needed to learn how to farm more profitably.”

The agricultural program benefited the students at the school especially those enrolled in Home Economics. The female students used the produce in learning to prepare meals, and during World War II the class prepared Victory Gardens to help sustain itself during food rationing.

Home Economics was a key part of the Webb School curriculum. Ms. Sleita Hyder led the charge in Home Economics at Webb School. She taught the girls a variety of skills including cooking, sewing, gardening, caring for children and caring for small livestock. Her goal was to promote better home lives for her students and develop the social skills girls needed.

In 1957, Professor Seets retired as principal of Webb School. He remained active with the school and its students far beyond his retirement. The extraordinary leader and educator served as a voice for the African-American community until his death in 1972.

Thornton A. Warford took the reins of Webb School with Professor Seets’ retirement. Warford joined Webb School in 1939 as a science teacher and coach (basketball and football). Professor Warford led the students and faculty until the school’s closure in 1966. He later served as assistant principal in the Jefferson County, Kentucky school system near Louisville. Mr. Warford died in April 2016 at the age of 101.

The U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) began the end of segregation in the United States declaring “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The Brown case was combined with four additional cases; Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington, D.C.).

In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by schools requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In their decision, which became known as “Brown II” the court delegated the task of carrying out school desegregation to district courts with orders that desegregation occur “with all deliberate speed.”

From two graduates in 1929 to over 1,000 graduates in total at the time of its closing, Webb School along with Professor Seets, Mr. Warford and numerous faculty left a lasting impression on the African-American community.

The effect was so lasting that in 1969 the Webb Alumni Association was organized with Obie Roscoe McKenzie serving as its first National President.

Numerous chapters hold charters all over the United States.

In 1973, the association created the Webb Development Group to purchase the Webb School property. By April of 1976, Carroll County passed a resolution to sell property to the Webb School Association for $95,000.

The terms included $12,000 down in cash and the unpaid balance to bear 6% interest annually to be paid on the anniversary date of the deed at $8,000 per year.

Under the terms, the Webb Association had to allow the building and property be used for the services and programs that were being offered at the time of purchase. If they were ever to sell, then the county would have the first opportunity to purchase the land. The hard work of the alumni helped preserve the grounds and prevent the building from being demolished.

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