Students lead chapel with Marvin Lorenzana, director of multicultural services at EMU.

EMU Grads Honor Classmate, Desegregation During Black History Month

Jay B. Landis never thought the 1954 class song he co-wrote would be performed after its debut at that year’s commencement ceremony at Eastern Mennonite University.

But on Friday, 57 years after graduation, Landis and five classmates stood in the same Lehman Auditorium on the campus of EMU singing that same tune.

The group of mostly retired EMU professors sang in honor of their late classmate, Margaret “Peggy” Webb, the first black student to graduate from the school and co-author of the song.

“I wrote the words and Peggy put the music to it,” said Landis, a professor emeritus at EMU. “I’m not terribly proud of it anymore. I could do better now, I think.”

Landis chuckled about his songwriting skills, but he and his classmates are quite proud of once sharing the campus with Webb.

EMU professor Mark Metzler Sawin invited the class members to sing as part of his Black History Month presentation in Harrisonburg, which focused on blacks and their involvement in the Mennonite community.

“Mark did a very good job of pulling together that history from the sources he used,” Landis said. “We don’t tell it often enough. People forget and we need to retell it again.”

Webb Was ‘Vivacious’

Sawin’s presentation at EMU’s weekly chapel forum touched on the history of blacks in the Shenandoah Valley as far back as 1790. While Mennonites back then did not approve of the idea of slavery, they tolerated it, Sawin said.

In 1920, the Virginia Mennonite Conference first debated allowing blacks in churches.

Admission was allowed, but, according to documents, the decision was made with “a word of caution against the integration and fellowship, which should not be too intimate.”

Peake Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg was the first in the VMC to baptize black people.

Webb’s mother, Roberta, taught school in the city from 1911 to 1922 and was very active at the Broad Street Mennonite Church, which opened in 1945. Roberta Webb was the first black person to live at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. She died in 1990, just before her 102nd birthday.

Peggy Webb was eager to be an educator like her mother and applied to Eastern Mennonite Seminary in 1945. VMC encouraged the school to instead enroll her at Hesston College in Hesston, Kan. She completed the two-year program and reapplied to Eastern Mennonite in 1952, three years after VMC allowed the school to make its own decision on admitting blacks.

Webb did her student teaching at the Lucy Simms School for blacks and graduated from EMS one month before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Classmate John Martin, also a retired professor at EMU, remembers Webb as a “vivacious” woman with many talents. Doris Bomberger, another classmate, remembers eating Sunday suppers at the Webb house.

“Oh, she was a sweet girl and she had a lovely voice,” Bomberger said. “They were a family that welcomed people into their homes.”

Student Moved By Song

CheRae Chaney, a black freshman from Portsmouth, participated in an opening praise dance before Sawin’s presentation and was inspired by the event.

“It was nice to know that he told the history, he didn’t sugarcoat it,” Chaney said. “I liked his unbiased truth about everything.”

Chaney was surprised the 1954 class song hadn’t been performed since that year’s graduation.

“I felt honored to be there when it was sung again,” she said. “Her story was really inspiring and it captured the essence of what I think Black History Month is.”