On October 29, 1909, the Exponent student newspaper reported on the newly established Dubois Club at Purdue, an organization of African American students inspired by the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. Listed among the officers of the club was Miss R.G. Webb, Treasurer. Previously, the earliest female African American student identified by name was 1927 graduate Inez Mason, though earlier group photographs indicated that she may not have been first. This 1909 citation meant we had the opportunity to highlight possibly the first African American female student, a young woman who attended the university nearly twenty years before Mason, but the subsequent research process was difficult.
Several factors complicated the search for Miss Webb, some of which we only learned later in the research process. We knew that during this period women were often left out of campus-wide activities, which were usually organized by and geared toward male students. Minority students were often excluded from campus activities and were banned from living in residence halls, so they did not often appear in records of student life. Both were factors in the case of Miss Webb, whose name appeared in none of our most used resources, such as the Exponent (aside from the single Dubois Club announcement) or Debris Yearbook. Further, Miss Webb’s name did not appear in the commencement programs or the Board of Trustees minutes recognizing each year’s degree recipients, so it is unclear from university sources whether she graduated.
Since Miss Webb did not appear in these Purdue resources, I expanded my search to HeritageQuest, a commonly used genealogy website. I found no good matches in the census records, which was unlikely with a name as common as Webb and no first name. However, a search of Lafayette city directories led to my first promising find. Rhoy G. Webb, student, lived in Lafayette during the 1909-1910 year.
With that first name, I continued my search and found another possible match in FindAGrave.com. Rhoycnette A. Webb (1893-1922) was buried in Peru, Indiana. Upon searching for that unusual full first name, I located a digitized student directory from the University of Illinois that included a Rhoygnette Ellison, whose name had been incorrectly transcribed as Rhoycnette.
With this new name in mind, I returned to FindAGrave and viewed the image of Webb’s headstone and found that her name had been written incorrectly and was likely Rhoygnette, not Rhoycnette.
With this first name now seemingly confirmed, I began a new search for Rhoygnette Webb. This finally led me to sources about the former Purdue student and her life after West Lafayette. She is mentioned by name in at least two books about black women in Chicago that were keyword searchable in Google Books: The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women’s Activism and Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women’s Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago, which identified her as a graduate of the Purdue University School of Pharmacy. This finally confirmed that the name of Miss R.G. Webb of the Dubois Club was Rhoygnette.
Seeking additional information about her life, I searched the Chicago Defender newspaper database. Articles in the Defender confirmed her identity and her path to becoming a prominent nurse in Chicago’s black community. Webb graduated from the Provident Hospital and Training School in 1914, listed as “Rhoygreete” and “Rhoygneette Allegra” in announcements about the graduation. The following year, Webb was featured in a front-page article about her career and appointment as head nurse at Dr. Butler’s Sanitarium in Evanston.
From there, I continued checking other common sources to flesh out any more details about Webb’s life. Of the three censuses in which she appeared, her first name appeared differently – and never correctly – in each one. 1900 saw Rhoyjnette Webb living with her parents on East 2nd Street, Peru, Indiana, with a birthdate of March 1886. In 1910, Rhoygnetta Webb, birthdate 1889, lived with her parents Joe and Mattie Webb on East Warren Street, Peru, Indiana, along with her younger brother Joe Webb, an orchestra musician. By 1920, R. Webb lived in Chicago with her Provident Hospital classmate Edna DePriest in a home located at 210 Rhodes Avenue, with a birthdate of 1893. With these inconsistencies, it is no wonder that identifying her was a challenge.
Webb died in 1922, only in her 30s. She left land to her friend Edna DePriest and the rest of her estate to her family.
There is a single reference to Miss Webb in the 1924 Purdue Alumni Directory as a former member of the 1911 Pharmacy class. This final piece of information about her time as a Purdue student provides yet another reason why she did not appear in any of the traditional student sources. In the earliest years of the university, the School of Pharmacy was often treated as a separate institution from the rest of the university and not active in student life.
There is still so much more to Rhoygnette Webb’s story, some of which may never be known. Miss Webb’s career aspirations, race, and gender all combined to make her seemingly invisible in the records of the university, and her frequently misspelled name made her difficult to trace in newspapers and vital records. She likely would have remained unknown to us had she not taken an active role in the leadership of the Dubois Club. Thanks to that club and its coverage in the Exponent, we can now identify and celebrate Miss Webb as one of Purdue’s groundbreaking students.