Eugene H. Webb, who was raised in racially segregated Alabama with modest ambitions, but who after transplanting himself to Harlem established what became the nation’s largest Black-owned real estate management company, died on April 5 at his home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He was 102.
His death was confirmed by Webb & Brooker, the New York-based management, leasing and sales company he founded with George M. Brooker in 1968, which oversaw thousands of apartments generating tens of millions of dollars in rents.
In addition to his role at the firm, where he became chairman emeritus, Mr. Webb was among the founders of Carver Federal Savings Bank and of Freedom National Bank (which closed in 1990 during a recession). Both banks earned a reputation for lending to prospective Black and Hispanic home buyers in neighborhoods like Harlem, where applicants had been reflexively rejected by other banks.
Mr. Webb also played a prominent role in Harlem’s contentious redevelopment history, when new projects often raised fears that old Harlemites would be pushed out. He was part of the team that built the $60 million Renaissance Plaza on West 116th Street in the late 1990s, which includes 240 cooperative apartments and more than 60,000 square feet of retail space.
“Eugene was a pioneer whose impact on diversity in this industry is largely unknown,” the Real Estate Board of New York’s president, James Whelan, and chairman, Douglas Durst, said in a statement.
Eugene Henry Webb, the great-grandson of a slave, was born on Nov. 18, 1918, in Red Level, a town in southern Alabama, to Eddie Webb, whom he never knew, and Docia (Foster) Webb, who worked as a cook in a local cafe. She raised him in a neighborhood of Greater Birmingham aptly named Sandy Bottom.
He grew up in a shotgun house, a common style in the South, barely 12 feet wide with rooms end to end. It was heated by lumps of coal that he and his brothers grabbed from passing trains.
“We rented. We didn’t own any land. We didn’t own anything,” Mr. Webb told the HistoryMakers Digital Archive in 2004.
He dropped out of Miles College in Fairfield, Ala., to marry and worked in a coal mine before finally getting his dream job in a steel mill. After a little more than a year, he decided that he had higher aspirations and it was time to move on.
He relocated to California, where he waited on tables in a hotel. He later worked as a dining car waiter for the New York Central and Seaboard Air Line railroads.
He enlisted in the Navy around 1941 and was deployed for most of World War II in the Marshall Islands.
He was discharged in New York, where a friend suggested he consider a career in real estate. He obtained a license after taking courses at Pohs Institute in Lower Manhattan and, after building a professional reputation, succeeded by making connections with established firms that referred business to him.
“The business that they didn’t want was like a piece of cake to me,” he said. “They didn’t need it, they say, ‘Give it to Webb.’”
In Mr. Webb’s case, connections were also made through Daniel L. Burrows, a founder of the United Mutual Life Insurance Company. Mr. Burrows was a Democratic powerhouse in Harlem and the father-in-law and mentor of the future mayor David N. Dinkins. Mr. Webb later became president of the insurance company.
More plain-spoken than politic, Mr. Webb was a registered Republican, although hr said he proudly voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
New York State hired Webb & Brooker in 1970 to manage properties taken over for the redevelopment of Times Square. By 1976, the firm was managing 6,000 apartments in 20 properties in Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.
“In Harlem we’ve pooled about $20 million in rents,” Mr. Webb told The New York Times that year. “Do you realize what that means if that money is channeled to local businesses to hire Black plumbers, painters and contractors?”
He and Mr. Brooker founded the Harlem Real Estate Board, where Mr. Webb served as president. After Mr. Brooker died in 1993, Mr. Webb assumed a policymaking role at the real estate firm and assigned operating control to Bernard Warren, who remains president.
Mr. Webb was a trustee of Miles College and of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
His survivors include his third wife, Danna (Wood) Webb, a lawyer, whom he married in 1999; his daughter, Brenda; five grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.