Wake leader backs busing for school diversity

Those working to dismantle the Wake schools' assignment policy should expect a fight from the new chairman of the county board of commissioners.

For Harold H. Webb, 83, continuing the busing of students to achieve economic diversity is merely the continuation of a lifelong struggle for racial equality.

A former Tuskegee Airman and educator who traveled the state during the 1960s to help integrate local school systems, he knows firsthand why the policies many parents now find onerous were established a generation ago. He helped create them.

The inconvenience suffered by families with students shuffled between schools, he says, is subordinate to the greater good achieved by avoiding the clustering of poor, minority children in schools in their urban neighborhoods.

"I was the principal of an all-black school," Webb said. "Enrollment needs to be as diverse as possible. When we started busing in 1976, the purpose was to give students from different communities, from different groups, the opportunity to interact with each other. If we lose that, those children will grow up to live more apart."

Joe Ciulla, an organizer for the Wake Schools Community Alliance and the parent of two students, said the alliance is not counting on Webb's support in its quest to end the system's reassignment policy. But he hopes Webb will keep an open mind.

Vigorous at 83

At an age when most folks are slowing down, Webb appears to have the energy of a much younger man. His father lived to be 99; his mother, 98.

Webb said he has never had a cavity, and smiles broadly to show he still has all his teeth.

Though he has a reputation as a consensus builder, Webb still has strong political chops.

Through his work helping to desegregate North Carolina's schools, Webb got to know Jim Hunt. When Hunt became governor in 1977, he appointed Webb as the state personnel director. Webb, the first black to hold the position, served eight years, retiring from state government in 1985.

He stayed involved in Democratic politics, however. Webb was a key statewide organizer for John Edwards' successful 1998 U.S. Senate campaign and helped run numerous local campaigns, including those of state Sen. Vernon Malone.

"The thing that has always stood out about Harold is his integrity," said Malone, a Raleigh Democrat. "He's not a guy that moves on whim and emotion. A lot of people are deceived sometimes because of his gentle persona that he's not tough. But they learn pretty quickly that, when it becomes necessary, he is a lion."

When Malone was elected to the state Senate in 2003, Webb beat out younger contenders to win appointment to serve the rest of Malone's term as the Wake commissioner representing District 5, which includes the largely black and strongly Democratic neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh.

2 terms on Wake board

Webb has since won re-election twice, both times soundly defeating Republican candidate Venita Peyton. She said the iron grip on political power retained by aging veterans of the civil rights struggle such as Webb and Malone impedes the rise of younger blacks with fresh ideas.

"Because he is not inclined to be involved with anything new, he relies on his past experiences," said Peyton, 52, a black woman. "So whenever younger people try to get elected, they don't get accepted. They control the political machine, so you're not having new leaders groomed for the future."

In the most recent election, Democrats won a majority on the county board for the first time since 2002. At a ceremony in December, Webb was sworn in by his daughter, Kaye R. Webb, a lawyer. His wife of 50 years, Lucille Webb, was at his side.

He beat out fellow Democratic commissioner Lindy Brown, 52, for the chairmanship. Webb said he wanted the job so he could improve the commissioners' relationship with members of the school board, which he says was greatly degraded under Republican rule. It is now more important than ever, he said, to make education the county's top priority.

"The economy is down, but we must find ways to increase resources for public education," Webb said. "It is an economic engine."

Tony Gurley, a Republican and past board chairman, said he initially welcomed Webb's ascension to the top position. But the two have recently sparred in public meetings, and Gurley now says he finds Webb too rigidly in lock-step with Democratic political allies such as school board chairwoman Rosa Gill.

"Harold is a great person, a remarkable person," said Gurley, a frequent critic of the Wake school system. "But he trusts the opinions of other people to our board's detriment. He listens to people who have an agenda, but he does not delve into what that agenda might be."

Emphasis on education

Webb's political instincts and priorities were forged in the frustrations of segregation and the triumphs of the civil rights movement.

Born in Greensboro in 1925, Webb was the third of four sons in a family in which academic achievement was stressed above all else, despite the disadvantages the sons faced under racial segregation.

Both his parents were college graduates. An English teacher, Webb's mother examined her sons' library cards each Christmas to tally who read the most books that year, rewarding the victor with a special gift.

His father was the state's first black agricultural extension agent. As a boy, Webb would travel with his dad to visit sharecroppers, some the sons and daughters of former slaves, eking out subsistence during the Great Depression.

The Webb family lived in an all-black neighborhood near A&T State College, his father's alma mater. But when he graduated from high school in 1941 at age 16, enrolling was not yet an option. With two older brothers already attending A&T, there was no money to pay tuition for a third.

Webb attended a series of segregated New Deal vocational schools, learning to upholster furniture, bake pastries and mill parts for ships. He finally enrolled at A&T in the spring of 1943, after his oldest brother graduated.

After just one quarter of college, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, shortly after his 18th birthday. With blacks largely relegated to noncombat, support roles in the nation's segregated military, Webb trained as a bomber mechanic.

At an air base in Florida, he saw a flight of three gleaming P-51 Mustang fighters with signature red tails landing in tight formation. When the planes pulled up to the ramp, black pilots climbed from the cockpits.

"I had been in the segregated Army for two years and had never seen an African-American officer," Webb said. "I knew that pilots were the glamour boys of the Air Corps, but I had not seen any blacks flying."

Webb had heard of the program for black fliers at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. An older brother was a civilian instructor there, teaching the physics of flight. Webb underwent the intense testing needed to qualify and was accepted. He arrived at Tuskegee in the summer of 1945 and began pilot training.

But two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August, ending the war. Webb returned to A&T on the GI Bill with dreams of becoming a physician.

Model for young blacks

Webb graduated in 1948 with a degree in biology. Unable to afford medical school, he took a job teaching science at the segregated Central High School in Hillsborough. In 1953, he was promoted to become the young principal of Cedar Grove Elementary School in northern Orange County.

Cedar Grove lacked many of the resources provided at whites-only schools. The school didn't have a cafeteria, so Webb persuaded the all-white school board to build one.

Hilda Pinnix-Ragland, an executive at Progress Energy who serves as chairman of the state Board of Community Colleges, remembers her impression as a Cedar Grove first-grader of the impeccably dressed man the students reverently called Mr. Webb.

"He was stylish and professional, an eloquent speaker," Pinnix-Ragland said. "He believed in us, and we believed in him. To this day, I will always be grateful for the impact he has had on me. He gave us the example to aspire to."

Webb's ability to innovate and build alliances got him noticed. In 1962, he was hired as a science consultant in the Negro Division at the state Department of Public Instruction.

He remembers his first assignment as a state education bureaucrat -- judging a science fair at an all-white high school in Johnston County.

"They didn't know I was black until I got there," Webb recalls, laughing.

As the state moved to desegregate its schools, he was assigned the potentially dangerous job of advising local officials on how to break down barriers and facilitate public meetings.

"There were very few conflicts among the students," Webb said. "The main conflicts were among the parents: fussing, fighting, parents jumping up and down. So it was a matter of getting a group of parents from both sides together, sitting down and working it out."

Once, while meeting with a group of black parents at a church in Sanford, he was tear-gassed by Lee County sheriff's deputies.

Webb worked with the Raleigh Citizens Association, a local organization advocating for civil rights. He was part of the "Oval Table Gang" of prominent black leaders who met in the kitchen of Ralph Campbell Sr., organizing efforts to desegregate Raleigh's public schools, plan demonstrations and launch political campaigns.

'Something has failed'

Sitting in his living room last month, surrounded by stacks of photos and other keepsakes from a full life, Webb reflected on the monumental changes he has seen. But he expressed some frustration that so many young blacks, born after the death of Jim Crow, don't take better advantage of their hard-won rights.

The white-headed commissioner, who usually appears in public dressed in a necktie and suspenders, admits he doesn't know how to reach the school-age teenagers he often sees standing at street corners a few blocks from his East Raleigh ranch home, near St. Augustine's College.

"Something has failed; something has fallen down society- wise," Webb said. "I'm making no excuses for anyone who gets into trouble or stays in trouble or increases the population in the jails."

When President Barack Obama was sworn in, Webb and other Tuskegee Airmen were honored with prime seats a few yards from the rostrum. He said Obama has the potential to be the sort of transformational leader he has not seen since John Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He is hopeful that the new president will serve as an example for young blacks living in poverty to take more responsibility for improving their lives.

"You see all these boys standing on the street corner, wearing pants about to fall off," Webb said, shaking his head. "I would hope that Obama being president would inspire these kids. We need a movement."