A voice against racism from Ridgefield history
The Rev. William Webb’s first realization that American society had different things in store for white men than it did for black men came when he was in high school in New York, where he was born in 1916.
“My cousin and I were sitting around the kitchen table talking about what we wanted to be when we got out of high school,” Webb said in 1972. “My cousin said that he wanted to be a rural postman. I said I wanted to be an accountant.
“My father, who had heard us talking, said, ‘Where have you ever seen a black accountant?’”
That incident led him to become more aware of the condition of African-Americans around him. Frustrated at the inequities in society, he decided to end his education after graduating from high school, and look for a job. It was 1934, the height of the Depression, and Webb wound up working on a poultry farm in Ridgefield, a community almost solely white.
“Most of the blacks then either worked in the service field or for the town,” Webb said. “There was no real middle class here. Nobody then would think of renting to black people. All were quartered in private homes.”
In the years that followed, racism was evident in many other cases. “One light-skinned Negro woman moved into a vacant apartment on Main Street,” Webb recalled. “Several days later, the landlord found out she wasn’t white and asked her to move out, which she did.”
Blacks would answer ads for rents, show up and be told the place was already rented when it wasn’t. “It is these kinds of barriers and handicaps that can become crippling over a period of years, not to mention disheartening,” Webb said.
In 1951 Webb and others, both black and white, founded the Ridgefield Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which remained active many years — with Webb often its president.
One of the NAACP’s first efforts was to seek an end to local minstrel shows in which whites comically portrayed blacks including on advertising posters. It was so bad that “black women would avoid the center of town during this time of year because of the embarrassment.”
The NAACP and Webb quietly handled many cases of discrimination and abuse provoked by race. One of the saddest involved a black man accused of making immoral advances to a white girl at a popular village store. The charge was not made by the girl, but by a racist-minded store employee who saw the two laughing and conversing, Webb said. The employee filed a complaint with the police who arrested and fingerprinted the man. The case was thrown out in court.
On Christmas Eve in 1978, a cross was burned on the front lawn of an interracial couple on Old Sib Road. Webb and the local and state NAACP pressed police for action, and three weeks later, five men, aged 15 to 20, were charged with third degree criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. At a police press conference, Webb praised the arrests, but criticized the misdemeanor charges (determined by the court prosecutor, not the police) as too light for a deed so vile. (The ringleader was convicted in both state and federal court cases, and spent time in jail.)
Webb became active in the state NAACP and served for a while as Connecticut president.
In 1969, he was ordained a minister, serving several African Methodist Episcopal congregations in Connecticut. In Ridgefield he helped lead efforts to bring affordable housing to town. A World War II veteran, he belonged to the American Legion and VFW posts.
He died in 1991, aged 75.
In all his handling of racial cases, Webb said he tried to deal directly with people and not through other agents or agencies. “It’s my way of life,” he said. “I try to understand a person’s character. If I know someone’s character, then I know how to handle the matter.”