Honoree: Beulah Webb
Honoree Category: ElderlyTireless community leader
Fearless friend to people in need
Sioux City Senior Center founder
Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame
Honoree Category: ElderlyTireless community leader
When the Rev. John Hantla Jr. introduced Beulah Webb to his fellow Sioux City Rotary Club members on Jan. 16, 1976, he quoted from the Bible: “A good woman, who can find?”
The Rotarians knew a good woman was in their midst. Her record of service to others, spanning five decades, was simply extraordinary.
Her latest accomplishment was the Sioux City Senior Center. She was a founder and the executive director of the 401 Fifth St. facility that opened in 1973. More than 18,000 people had been welcomed by the center in 1975.
Beulah invited the Rotarians to visit the downtown center. She dared them to move beyond stereotypes – to see senior citizens as people who can get things done.
“I want you to care, beware and share, and if you do that, you’ll know that senior citizens are on the map. Tomorrow you’ll be where we are today.”
Eighty-two-year-old Beulah Webb accepted the Sioux City Rotary Club’s 1976 “Service Above Self” award that day, remarking she still was “so full of things” she wanted to do.
The Rotary Club award presentation was an opportunity for The Sioux City Journal to run a page-one story about Beulah’s life of service. The headline? “A Good Woman? Here’s One.”
Born in Omaha in 1895, Beulah had improved the lives of tens of thousands of people. She had inspired thousands more with her faith, perseverance and infectiously forthright and positive attitude.
“Every day is a beautiful day. We should celebrate,” she said on her 100th birthday.
According to Beulah’s philosophy of action and optimism, her failing eyesight and age were not obstacles. She had dealt with much tougher opponents, beginning in 1924 when she and her husband, Charles, moved from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sioux City. The young African American mother of two daughters found that doors “weren’t always opened.” In Sioux City she faced discrimination as she had never faced it before.
At the movie theater “I’d ask why I was told where to sit. I told them they could refund my money if they wouldn’t let me sit where I wanted to. They didn’t refund my money and I just sat down.”
Charles worked at Swift & Co., one of the “big three” meatpackers in the Stockyards district. Beulah worked at Armour, another meatpacking giant. She also found employment as a housekeeper and a maid at downtown’s West Hotel. “I haven’t been above anything. Any work you do is honorable.”
Her social life was a different story; it was practically non-existent. Beulah wanted to get involved but “nobody put out their hands to welcome me. I was a stranger within the gates here,” she told The Journal in a 1979 interview. “I think I cried for a whole year.”
After that first lonely year in Sioux City, Beulah committed herself to change. She embraced a resource that had been there all along. It inspired her to move beyond her feelings of isolation. The resource? Her mother’s example of reaching out to others. “My mother believed in socializing and civic work.”
Beulah’s mother, Nancy Williams, became a single parent of three children when her husband, Jackson, died. Nancy worked outside the home to support her children, yet she always found time to get involved in her community.
When Beulah visited family members in St. Joseph, they asked what she was doing in Sioux City. “Nothing,” she told them. She felt like an outsider. “Nothing” didn’t sit well with her mother who urged her to get out there and get involved and stop waiting for others to hold out a welcoming hand.
Beulah returned to Sioux City with a different attitude. She began reaching out. Within a year, she had organized the Hour of Pleasure Club to promote social interaction. The organization focused on civic, cultural and educational activities. It was particularly popular among older women.
She reached out to her South Bottoms neighborhood in the Sioux City Stockyards district where immigrant families had lived for decades alongside African Americans and Native Americans. Most residents worked in meatpacking plants or for the railroads. In all, more than 20 nationalities were represented. While African Americans mixed with immigrant white neighbors in the South Bottoms, other parts of Sioux City were defined as “white” or “black.”
South Bottoms residents lived in small, wooden houses on dirt streets in an environment thick with stockyards and packing house smells and sounds. The neighborhood was bounded on the south by the Missouri River, on the north by Third Street, on the west by Nebraska Street, and on the east by the old Floyd River channel. Ethnic grocery stores, churches and schools were part of the neighborhood.
Beulah embraced life in the South Bottoms. “That was one of the happiest times of my life.” She offered to help at Wall Street Mission, located at Dace Avenue and Wall Street, later renamed “Floyd Boulevard.” She assisted in the mission’s day care, one of Sioux City’s earliest facilities dedicated to helping working women.
The Rev. John Hantla, Sr., director of Wall Street Mission, began asking Beulah to help in other ways. Soon she was serving as a liaison between the mission and parents, churches and public health nurses.
She helped develop the Booker T. Washington Community Center at 722½ W. Seventh St. which would evolve into Sanford Community Center at 1700 Geneva St. Named for one of the nation’s most influential educators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the club was started by African American men in 1933. Women soon joined in to help. Beulah was one of the first board members.
“We used to get coal by the scuttle to keep warm and our meetings would often last until midnight. But it was fun. We got a lot of things done.” Beulah would go on to become a director of Sanford Center, retiring in 1977 at the age of 82.
A commitment to promoting education fueled Beulah’s work on behalf of South Bottoms children. The original school, known as the Fifth Ward School, was built in 1885. It was replaced by the Worcester School which was badly outdated. Despite opposition to plans for a new school, Beulah and her fellow South Bottoms activists persisted. Their efforts resulted in Hobson School at the corner of Wall Street and Dace Avenue. Named in honor of J.B. Hobson, principal of the old school for many years, Hobson School opened in 1938. Once again, Beulah’s mother had inspired action.
“We were always aggressive people on my mother’s side. The bonds of my family were very strong and we were taught obedience and love. Above all, we were taught that you must be for education. I push that…with young people – where are you going? How far are you going?” she told The Journal in 1979.
Beulah believed that families living in squalor could hardly put education first. When she saw people living in sub-standard housing in her South Bottoms neighborhood along the Missouri Riverfront, she refused to look the other way.
“It was terrible to go to the riverfront and see how people were living. Dirt floors,” she said. “There were 12 tin shacks and people paid $12 a year to ‘squat’ there. Five or six children would be sleeping on the floor. There were no toilet facilities. If there was a fire…God was watching out for them.”
Beulah confronted the property owners responsible for the shacks. The “landlords” thought she was collecting funds for a church and refused to talk to her. “I told them I wasn’t collecting for a church, I was coming about housing. They sent me in a circle but I told them if I didn’t get what I wanted, I’d be back.”
She dished up “a threat” that became a Beulah Webb technique for getting things done: If she didn’t see action, she’d go to The Journal with the story. “The organizations didn’t want to be exposed.” Instead, they answered Beulah’s demands for a clean-up. In 1938, Beulah established the Torch Bearers and Progress Club to improve housing in all areas of the city.
Her call to community action continued as associate director of the Sioux City USO unit at 722 W. Seventh St. during World War II. Sioux City had one USO for black soldiers; and one for white soldiers.
She began working with the Girl Scouts when her daughters, Leah and Thelma, were children. She remained active in the organization for 35 years as a leader and counselor. Beulah organized the first integrated 4-H Club, known as the Sanfordettes. She served on the boards of the Mary Treglia Community Center, YWCA and Red Cross. She was a member of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World for 43 years.
Beulah often was the only African American on a board or in an organization, but she encountered little prejudice. “Maybe I had a determined look.” Or maybe her fellow Sioux Cityans came to realize that Beulah cared about all people, regardless of race, economic status or age.
Beulah served as president and membership chair of Woodbury County Council on Aging. She doubled the membership in just two years. In 1971, Gov. Robert Ray named her an Iowa delegate to the White House Commission on Aging. She was assigned to the commission’s housing committee.
From her work with the Council on Aging, Beulah saw need for a senior center and began to promote the idea in 1969 – a year after her husband, Charles, died. When she encountered opposition, she threatened to take the story to The Journal.
She organized a women’s club in 1972 to promote culture, education, literature and art and to advance the solution of social problems.
In 1974, the Iowa State Fair named Beulah Iowa’s Outstanding Senior Citizen. The recognition noted headline-making achievements, most notably her role in establishing the Sioux City Senior Center. It also lauded Beulah’s ongoing commitment to being a friend, especially to people who felt alone.
“…She has assisted personally elderly persons with such chores as house cleaning, grocery shopping and home making for more than 40 years, and she takes hot food to shut-in senior citizens. She was active in promoting a new program for assisting elderly persons with free household repairs if the homes of these people were in danger of being red-tagged. She recognized the critical need for housing in Sioux City for low-income people, she helped establish the Rehabilitation Program for Elderly Homeowners. The program targeted low income homeowners 65 and older.”
In 1974, the Sioux City Kiwanis Club honored Beulah with its Outstanding Citizenship Award. The distinction added to her many awards, including the Governor’s Leadership Award, Briar Cliff College’s Community Service Award and the Women of Excellence Award sponsored by Women Aware. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1997.
The mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother died on Jan. 5, 1998 at the age of 102. Her friend, the Rev. Marvin J. Boes, officiated at her funeral Mass at St. Boniface Catholic Church. She was buried at Calvary Cemetery.
Beulah’s legacy of community service can be traced back to a mother’s influence on a young daughter who felt like a stranger in her new community. On her 100th birthday, Beulah’s advice for senior citizens echoed her mother’s loving call to community action.
“No one likes to get old,” she told The Journal in 1979. “Get out of your rocking chair. Keep on keeping on…You know there will always be stumbling blocks but you must try. That’s life.”