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Webb family looks back on 50 years of advocacy

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

When Reggie Webb was 10, his mother and grandmother packed him a sack of fried chicken and pound cake and put him on a bus in South Bend, Indiana for a 30-hour ride to Madison, Arkansas, where he was to help his great-grandparents tend to their five-acre farm.

When he crossed the Mason-Dixon line for the first time in his life, at the Illinois-Missouri border, he had to change seats.

“You know, those ‘white only,’ ‘colored’ sections of the bus,” said Reggie, now 73. “White section’s in the front, the colored in back.”

Down in Arkansas he was familiarized with “colored” entrances, race-segregated restrooms and drinking fountains.

“You were taught very quickly, once you were going south, and reminded all the time when you were there, what behaviors were expected of you,” Reggie said. “And they all were behaviors that allowed you to know every day that you were subordinate.”

It was a profound experience, and helped to plant the seed for what would become a lifetime of working to right that wrong.

Along with his wife René, and eventually, their three children, he would grow a successful food service business to include 16 locations throughout the Inland Empire before retiring in May 2021. That business success helped propel the Webb’s five-decade passion for the economic empowerment of Black and other marginalized communities. This past December, California State University, San Bernardino recognized that passion when it awarded the couple — who have lived in the Claraboya neighborhood of Claremont since 1998 — honorary doctors of humane letters degrees.

Born in South Bend, Indiana, Reggie’s family came to Southern California when he was 11. Wife René was born in Medford, Massachusetts. She made the trek to the Golden State in 1966, at 16.

Los Angeles was far from a colorblind utopia. It had unspoken racial covenants such as redlining that served to keep people of color segregated. The map was dotted with “sundown towns” with posted signs informing Black people they needed be outside the city limits by dusk. The American Nazi Party set up shop in Glendale, and the Ku Klux Klan didn’t ride through town on horseback, but it did and does operate in L.A., albeit in suit and tie, not sheets and hoods.

“But beyond that, it was a pretty free environment,” Reggie recalled. “We went to [Santa Monica’s] Pacific Ocean Park. You’d get on the bus or the trolley and go to a lot of these places, to the beach and that kind of stuff, and you and your friends were free to go and do whatever anybody else can do.”

Both René and Reggie came of age during a time of civil rights demonstrations, assassinations, war, riots and social upheaval.

Reggie’s worldview expanded after joining the U.S. Coast Guard. He was home on leave when he met René on a blind date in March 1967. He was stationed in Alameda, a stone’s throw away from San Francisco, the nexus of 1960s West Coast political and social counterculture.

Though he mostly enjoyed the Coast Guard, many officers hailed from the American South. Coming from California, the overt racism was jarring.

“I thought it was inconsistent with the promise of the United States,” Reggie said. “And I was very disappointed in that fact. And it’s also very different from what my experiences were just living and growing up in Los Angeles.”

In 1973 Reggie and René — recently married and new homeowners — were looking for stability. The McDonald’s corporation had recently gone public with an IPO. The company was growing fast, and they needed Black talent in Los Angeles.

He spent 12 years as an employee, the last five as a regional vice president of Southern California. Then in 1985, the Webbs became McDonald’s franchisees with their first two restaurants in Pomona. They would grow that business to include 16 locations in the Inland Empire before retiring in May 2021.

The couple’s three children, sons Karim and Kyle, and daughter Kiana, have each followed their parents’ example of combining business acumen with community service, serving on the boards of multiple nonprofits and foundations. Kiana is now the president of Webb Family Enterprises, and Kyle is its CFO. Karim has continued his family’s food service tradition and owns four Buffalo Wild Wings locations.

“Our kids and I are still involved in our business, but our passion was always in developing people, particularly in social equity enterprises,” Reggie said. “And so we’re now full-time working to develop people who have similar backgrounds as ours to go on to become entrepreneurs.”

The couple have a uniquely long view on the Black experience in America. Despite recent setbacks with respect to voting rights, Reggie said he thinks of progress as a constantly fluctuating graph, but with a trend line of consistent upward motion.

“When I take a look at the African American community today that trend is up,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind.”

He cited representational improvements for Black Americans in media and housing as cause for optimism, but was less upbeat about a nagging shortfall in that most elemental measurement: economic mobility.

“Unfortunately, we have reached a point where a lot of people think that African Americans are doing better than they are,” Reggie said. “The reality is today, at 13 or 14% of the population, we own 1% of the GDP. And as long as that’s the case you’re going to have a very sizable percentage of African Americans who are impoverished and living in environments that they have no opportunity to escape.”

Capitalism is driven by winners and losers: competitors engage, market shares are divided, some businesses ascend, others contract or disappear. On paper, it’s survival of the fittest, but is the system tilted against Black Americans?

“We’re a capitalist country. And if you’re not playing in the capitalist environment, you’re going to always be further behind, and falling further behind, economically,” Reggie said. “Economic success is where power and influence comes from. If [Black Americans] have one-tenth of the family income of the average White family in the United States, then we are going to always be subordinate in terms of the privileges of being an American.

“And so that is where the change needs to occur, and that is where the fight really is in my mind.”

Webb Family Enterprises continues to be a source of change in the community. The second generation of Webbs run it now, but despite their recent retirement, their elders are no less passionate about growing its reach in empowering the underserved.

And their family is also growing. This year they will add a grandchild and great-grandchild to their current roster of six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

I always close interviews by asking my subjects if they have anything else they’d like COURIER readers to know. Reggie chimed in first:

“I think that, you know, life has been a …”

“A blessing,” René said.

“A blessing,” Reggie continued, “and a privilege, and it still is. We’re in the fourth quarter, and every quarter has its assets and liabilities, the things that you learn, the things that you look forward to, and your disappointments. But overall and on balance, it’s hard to believe that we started from where we started from in life, that we could have had a better one than we’ve had.”

“We’ve had a good life,” René said. “A really good life.”

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