John Lee Webb was a well-known African-American contractor and philanthropist in Hot Springs (Garland County).
John L. Webb was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on September 17, 1877, to the Reverend B. L. Webb, who was a Baptist minister, and his wife, Henrietta Webb. The couple had ten other children. John Webb’s family was not wealthy, so he had to provide for many of his own wants.
Webb began studying at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1897 at nineteen years old and was spoken of highly by the wife of Booker T. Washington, founder of the institute. He volunteered for the Spanish-American War, serving from April 25 to August 12, 1898. After the war, he returned to Tuskegee and finished his education. He then left Tuskegee and traveled around the country, becoming a contractor while also studying fraternal organizations. In 1912, he accepted the position of Grand Lecturer for the Masons of Mississippi and toured the state with the goal of rebuilding confidence in fraternal organizations. At the time, Mississippi’s Smiley Law required each fraternal order that was to do business in the state to make a deposit of $10,000. As a result of this law, such organizations folded one by one. On the night of August 27, 1913, Webb stood before the Supreme Lodge of the Woodmen of the Union, where he listened to their plea and declared himself willing to assume the risk and post the needed $10,000. The organization was turned over to Webb; due to his efforts, the organization grew from eighty-two members to 70,000. The organization came to own property worth $600,000, free of debt.
Webb first visited Hot Springs just before the Fire of 1913, called “Black Friday” locally, which left a significant section of the city in ashes. Webb’s contacts at Tuskegee and his impeccable reputation for honesty made it possible for him to acquire much property and finances. He saw Hot Springs as a cosmopolitan town where African Americans like himself could build and live without harm. Webb built one of the most prestigious buildings in the South at the time, the Woodmen of the Union Building in Hot Springs. The work began in 1923 and was finished by 1924 at a cost of $500,000.
Webb was a member of Roanoke Baptist Church, the oldest African-American church in Hot Springs. Webb was also connected to the Phythians, Odd Fellows, Masons, Mosaic Templars, and Jugamos. He was president of the Negro Insurance Men’s Association, as well as the National Baptist Laymen’s Convention, which he founded in California in 1924. He was president of the Negro Business League, Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Masons of Mississippi, treasurer of the Tuskegee National Alumni Association, and Supreme Custodian of the Supreme Lodge of the Woodmen of the Union.
Webb and his wife, Carrie Eleane Branson Webb from Marianna (Lee County), had a daughter, Emma Elease Webb. She died in 1943, and the Emma Elease Webb Community Center was named in her honor.
Webb died on August 30, 1946. He is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in the family mausoleum.
The area Webb resided in and helped build, the Pleasant Street Historic District, is the largest African-American historic district in Arkansas. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
For additional information:
Griggs, Sutton E. Triumph of the Simple Virtues, or the Life Story of John L. Webb. Hot Springs, AR: Messenger Pub. Co., 1926.
“John L. Webb: The Man and the Legacy” Project Report, Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://ark-cat.com/browse/fulldetail.aspx?id=194#scope (accessed September 13, 2016).
Mross, Steven. “Project to Save, Fix up Black Architect’s 1900 House.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 20, 2015, p. 6B.
“Pleasant Street Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/GA0712.nr.pdf (accessed September 13, 2016).
Cheryl L. Batts
People Helping Others Excel by Example (PHOEBE)