Webb, Frank J.
Webb, Frank J.
March 21, 1828
May 7, 1894
Novelist, newspaperman, and educator Frank Johnson Webb was named after an internationally popular black orchestra leader in Philadelphia. His proud, striving family apparently provided a classical education. In 1845 Webb married Mary E., the similarly educated daughter of a fugitive Virginia slave and reputed Spanish nobleman. Before Frank and Mary launched their artistic careers, the Webbs' Philadelphia cloth and clothing designing business failed in 1854, despite winning prizes in Philadelphia for its products in the early 1850s.
Early in the spring of 1855 Mary set out to become a dramatic reader with Frank as her manager. She gained encouragement and training assistance from Harriet Beecher Stowe, who dramatized selections from Uncle Tom's Cabin precisely for Mary. John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and others commended her efforts. Through May 1856, she performed from Washington, D.C., to Cleveland, Ohio. Nearly everywhere, however, the Webbs faced racial restrictions and condescension. Frank publicly and independently spoke out in favor of black emigration and martial training. In September 1855 the Webbs sought passage to Brazil but were denied because, as Mary said in a private letter, her husband was "somewhat more brown" than she.
Believing they might be treated better in England, they encouraged Stowe to write introductions and were well received there by friendly nobility in July 1856. Mary's readings and Frank's well-written, groundbreaking novel The Garies and Their Friends, published in London in September 1857, both enjoyed generally positive reviews. The modest adventures of the novel's black hero, Charlie Ellis, and those of mixed-race peers in and around racist Philadelphia suggest the author's own experiences. Stowe's hasty preface may have encouraged sales, but did not throw any light on the novel or its little-known author. By that September Mary's consumption had also been noted; the Webbs went to southern France for her health through January 1858. English friends then arranged for a clerk's position in the post office for Frank in Kingston, Jamaica.
Despite their English successes, the couple's short stop in Philadelphia before heading for Jamaica was disappointing. A dramatic reading was not well attended, and no American offered to publish Frank's novel. Stowe abandoned them. She wrote to friends that she had been "worn down" attempting to guide the Webbs and other African Americans in England. No English person had noticed this burden—nor did Stowe's sister, who admired the Webbs' refinement.
In March the Webbs moved to Jamaica, where Mary died in June 1859. Five years later Frank married Jamaican Mary Rosabell Rodgers, and together they had six children. In 1869 he moved to Washington, D.C., worked as a Freedman's Bureau clerk, studied law at Howard University, and contributed two stories with male characters like his novel's hero further refined, but white; three short race-defending commentaries; and two love poems. He also attempted, unsuccessfully, to find a publisher for another novel.
Late in 1870 the reunited Webb family moved to Galveston, Texas. Frank edited and published the assertively black Galveston Republican newspaper from January to August 1871. Between 1872 and 1878 he clerked in a post office and strove to create a Republican Party that respected blacks. From 1881 through 1894 he was a teacher, and he served as a high school principal through his remaining years. His wife lectured and wrote race-lifting papers. His eldest son was also a writer and newspaperman.
Crockett, Rosemary F. "'The Garies and Their Friends': A Study of Frank J. Webb and His Novel." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1998.
Gardner, Eric, "'A Gentleman of Superior Cultivation and Refinement': Recovering the Biography of Frank J. Webb." African American Review 35 (2001): 297–308.
allan d. austin (1996)
Updated by author 2005