Frank Webb, poet, essayist and early Black novelist

Herb Boyd | 4/1/2021, midnight
Whenever there is mention of early African American authors, invariably, Frank Webb is among them, but little else is said ...
Frank Webb

Whenever there is mention of early African American authors, invariably, Frank Webb is among them, but little else is said about him other than mention of his novel “The Garies and Their Friends.” Published in 1857, it is considered the second African American novel and the first to provide a realistic portrait of free Blacks in the North.

Born Francis Johnson Webb March 21, 1828 in Philadelphia, Frank was the fifth and youngest child of Francis Webb and Louisa Burr Webb. His maternal grandfather, a fact confirmed via DNA in 2018, was former Vice President Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Frank’s early years were distinguished too as a family member who in 1824 left the U.S. and returned two years later, after a failed migration experiment to Haiti.

Lawrence Rodgers in his short profile of Frank in the “Oxford Companion to African American Literature” referenced a preface by Harriet Beecher Stowe on “The Garies…” for the background material on Frank. But even she was not exactly sure about some of the facts of his life, noting that he may have lived in England sometime prior to the publication of his novel. And that would be consistent with the path chosen by other African American writers when discrimination all but blocked such opportunities in America.

Besides “The Garies…” Rodgers cites two other novelettes—"Two Wolves and a Lamb” (1870) and “Marvin Hayle” (1870). “Webb’s novelettes,” Rodgers wrote, “focus on the leisure activities of upper-class society in London, Paris, and Cannes.” Here is a sample of Frank’s style and interest:

There was nothing about Mr. Garie, the gentleman who sat at the head of the table, to attract more than ordinary attention. He had the ease of manner usual with persons whose education and associations have been of a highly refined character, and his countenance, on the whole, was pleasing, and indicative of habitual good temper. Opposite to him, and presiding at the tea-tray, sat a lady of marked beauty. The first thing that would have attracted attention on seeing her were her gloriously dark eyes. They were not entirely black, but of that seemingly changeful hue so often met with in persons of African extraction, which deepens and lightens with every varying emotion. Hers wore a subdued expression that sank into the heart and at once riveted those who saw her.

Her hair, of jetty black, was arranged in braids; and through her light-brown complexion the faintest tinge of carmine was visible. As she turned to take her little girl from the arms of the servant, she displayed a fine profile and perfectly molded form. No wonder that ten years before, when she was placed upon the auction-block at Savanah, she had brought so high a price. Mr. Garie had paid two thousand dollars for her, and was the envy of all the young bucks in the neighborhood who had competed with him at the sale. Captivated by her beauty, he had esteemed himself fortunate in becoming her purchaser; and as time developed the goodness of her heart, and her mind enlarged through the instructions he assiduously gave her, he found the connection that might have been productive of many evils, had proved a boon to both; for whilst the astonishing progress she made in her education proved her worthy of the pains he took to instruct her, she returned threefold the tenderness and affection he lavished upon her.

Frank’s book was published after William Wells Brown’s “Clotel,” and Rodgers explained that the plot to “The Garies” is contrived and “follows the fortunes of three families with roots in the South—the dark-skinned Ellises, the interracial Garies, and the white Stevenses, headed by the villainous ‘Slippery’ George.” Basic to this convolution is Frank’s focus on the emergence of the Black middle class, “arguing that wealth is the key to African American advancement,” Rodgers concludes.

In several ways Frank anticipated the themes of interracial marriage, passing, and the mulatto long before the novels of the Harlem Renaissance and clearly before Hollywood began to tackle the complexity of these entanglements.

Literary critic Bernard W. Bell offers additional insight on Frank’s “The Garies,” in his book “The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition,” and draws a sharp distinction between his novel and “Clotel,” where you “do not find a direct attack on slavery anywhere.” Rather than three families as the central characters in “The Garies,” as Rodgers notes, only two families are critical to Bell’s assessment of the novel. But he agrees with Rodgers on the necessity of wealth. “Instead of Christian charity or Black power,” Bell writes, “Webb’s answer to racial discrimination is green power. ‘I tell you what….’ says attorney George Stevens, the bigoted mastermind of terrorism, ‘if I was a Black living in a country like this, I’d sacrifice conscience and everything else to the acquisition of wealth.’” The characters are powered by the quest for financial clout believing that whites will respect their class if not their color. A passage from the novel, cited by Bell, captures this quest and the impact of class prestige. “‘It is impossible,’ says the pragmatic Mr. Walters, ‘to have the same respect for the man who cleans your boots, that you have for the man who plans and builds your house.’” It should be noted, however, that Frank does offer a passing nod to the Haitian revolution and its leader Toussaint L’ouverture.

In 1870, Frank and his family moved to Galveston, Texas where he served as an alternative delegate to the Republican State Convention. He was employed as a newspaper editor, and later as a postal clerk, and for 13 years he was the principal at a segregated school.

Frank died in Galveston in 1894.