CHARLES TOWN – The hard work of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society has succeeded in saving one of the area’s earliest stone structures built by free African-Americans.
The Webb House was built by James H. Webb between 1829 and 1830. The home preserves an often-overlooked part of local history: Webb, a free black man, completed the work more than 60 years before the abolition of slavery.
“He was a free African-American,” said James Taylor, one of the group’s co-founders. “At the time there were free blacks living here, as well as slaves.”
The group has successfully traced the long chain of hands through which the house passed. Over the years it served as a stopping place for carriages and as a shoe store, as well as housing several members of the Webb and other families.
The Webb House is attached to a second piece of history: the Blessing House, which was the home of John Frederick Blessing, a baker who prepared meals for John Brown while he was incarcerated during and after his trial in Charles Town. Brown would eventually give Blessing his Bible shortly before going to the scaffold.
Blessing attached the stone house to a larger wood-frame house next door, making it into a kitchen.
Taylor said he, along with George Rutherford, James Tolbert, and Nathaniel Downing, who has since passed away, saw the building boarded up and slated for demolition. He said as a child, he remembered Ollie Blessing, who operated a kindergarten out of the home for many years, regularly inviting African-American children in to study and play with white pupils, an unusual practice during the era of segregation.
Those memories, along with the knowledge of its historical importance, motivated the four men to save the structure from demolition and to preserve it for later generations.
“It’s all original. Everything is original,” Rutherford said, pointing out the preserved plaster walls of a bedroom on the second floor of the structure.
“We will do very little [to the house.] We just want people to be able to walk through and to see what it is,” he said.
The group has developed a pamphlet describing the history of the site and attached a commemorative plaque to the front wall. The site has already been toured by a large delegation from Chatham, Ontario, Canada, a popular destination for escaped slaves who fled using the Underground Railroad.