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Frederick Madison Roberts, the great-great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, had an major impact on early 20th century politics in California and was the first Black legislator in Los Angeles and the state as a whole.

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

Olivia Brown: Today, there are hundreds of descendants of Thomas Jefferson and at Monticello many dedicated staff members spend time learning and recording their stories. [00:01:00] Few may know, however, about the great-great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson, who became the first Black legislator in California and who spent his life and career considering how the principle "all men are created equal" could be applied to broader numbers of Americans. I'm joined today by Monticello Guide Andrew Miles and we're going to tell you about the fascinating and powerful story of Frederick Madison Roberts. 

Andrew Miles: On July 4, 1827, one year after the death of his father, Thomas Jefferson, Madison Hemings, a young man formerly enslaved at Monticello, received his legal freedom from enslavement. He and his brother, Eston Hemings, lived free in the city of Charlottesville until the death of their mother, Sally Hemings, in 1835. 

In the late 1830s, Madison Hemings and his wife, Mary McCoy, moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, [00:02:00] where members of both of their families had already relocated. Chillicothe had a thriving free black community and was a hub for abolitionists of both races. Madison and Mary McCoy Hemings had a large family, including 10 children. Their youngest daughter, born in 1856, was named Ellen Wayles Hemings, and was later described by her grandchildren as, "feisty right to the end." In Chillicothe, Ellen Wayles Hemings married a schoolteacher who had studied at Wilberforce University in Oberlin, Ohio - Andrew Jackson Roberts - and in 1884, they moved along with two young children to California, arriving in Los Angeles during an economic boom. A.J. Roberts started making money by hauling goods and eventually owned the Los Angeles Van, Truck and Storage Company. Later, he also opened the first Black-owned mortuary in the city, called a "pioneering establishment" by Delilah Beasley in her [00:03:00] 1919 book, The Negro Trailblazers of California. 

Olivia Brown: When the Roberts family moved to Los Angeles, their son Frederick was about five years old. Though he was born in Ohio, California was his home. As a teenager, Frederick Madison Roberts attended Los Angeles High School and became its first African American graduate. His father, having previously been a schoolteacher, passed on to his son a dedication to education. Frederick Madison Roberts began college at the University of South California, but eventually continued at Colorado College, where he was not only a debater, but also a member of the football team. After graduating from Colorado College, Roberts chose to stay in the area. He remained in Colorado Springs, and in 1908, served as editor of the Colorado Springs Light newspaper.

Like his father, Robert seemed to be a man of many interests and talents. [00:04:00] Just a year before becoming the editor of the Colorado Springs Light, Frederick Madison Roberts took time off to instead pursue a gold-prospecting venture in western Nevada. According to historian Lucia Stanton, this didn't go as planned as Roberts "was lost in the desert near Death Valley for two days and nights." He served as a deputy tax assessor, studied mortuary science in Chicago, and eventually returned home to Los Angeles to work in the family business. His interest in education and his time as a newspaper editor clearly influenced him, however; in 1912, Roberts founded the New Age Dispatch, an African American newspaper he edited until 1948. Simultaneously, he helped run his father's mortuary, making him an ingrained part of the growing Black community in Los Angeles. 

Andrew Miles: Roberts came from a line of people who cared deeply about racial equality and who fought for it throughout their lives. His grandfather, Madison Hemings, attended a church in Chillicothe, known for its anti-slavery activism and ties to the Underground Railroad. His father, A.J. Roberts, was a vice president of his local chapter of the National Urban League, an organization devoted to civil rights and urban advocacy. Frederick Madison Roberts himself was an active member, not only in the National Urban League, but also in the NAACP. In 1915, he was part of a group that protested production of D.W. Griffith's The Clansman, later known as Birth of a Nation, because of its racist and white supremacist ideas. Though he spent a short stint that same year in Mississippi, serving as the principal of the Normal and Industrial Institute in Mound Bayou, he returned to Los Angeles and [00:06:00] entered the world of politics. 

In July 1918, Frederick Madison Roberts announced his candidacy for the 74th California State Assembly District. It was only a month before the Republican primary. California's 74th was a solidly Republican district, and four white men had already begun campaigning for their party's nomination. The Los Angeles African American community quickly rallied around the late entrant, but Roberts also made appeals to white voters in the diverse district. The Black vote strongly supported Roberts and the white vote split five ways across all candidates. It was enough to make a difference, and Roberts earned his party's nomination. 

Olivia Brown: In prior years, that would have been the end of the story. Neither the Democratic nor Socialist parties had strong showings in the district, but Roberts became the center of white backlash when one independent [00:07:00] candidate ran on an explicitly anti-Black platform, sending out mailings calling Roberts by racial slurs. The assembly race became a referendum on race and racism in Los Angeles. Roberts' community activism and editorship of his New Age newspaper gave him name recognition throughout the district, and he campaigned on his own experience as well as the promise that he would be the representative for all the citizens in the 74th district, not just the Black community. The strategy worked. Susan Anderson, History Curator at the California African American Museum, credits Roberts for creating one of the first multiracial coalitions in the state, and one that would become a blueprint for future Black politicians on the West Coast. 

Frederick Madison Roberts made an immediate impact at the State Assembly in Sacramento, introducing [00:08:00] 17 bills in his first month in office. He advocated for a variety of issues, including better sanitation, public schools, prohibition, and the rights of citizens against government abuse. He also continued fighting for civil rights, sponsoring bills that heightened penalties for discriminatory business practices, as well as an anti-masking law, which banned Ku Klux Klan members from covering their heads during public assemblies. Versions of both bills would become law. 

Andrew Miles: Roberts spent 16 years in the California State Assembly, where he advocated for not only African American communities, but also working class people across the state. Throughout this time, he gained a reputation as a pragmatic and efficient legislator, though much of his impact stemmed from his continued activism beyond the statehouse. During the 1920s, he met Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey [00:09:00] when he visited Los Angeles. Roberts organized the NAACP and Los Angeles city officials to counteract any violent reactions to the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, and spent much of the 1920s fighting against the resurgence of the KKK. 

For Frederick Madison Roberts, the 1920s were about both politics and family. In 1921, he married Pearl Hinds, the daughter of Lucy McKinney and Wiley Hinds, a freed man from Arkansas who owned one of the largest cattle ranches in California. Pearl Hinds Roberts was known for her musical talents, studying at the Boston Conservancy and Oberlin College. In Los Angeles, she was an organist, choir director, and was the first Black woman to work retail at a downtown LA department store. In 1952, she served as a member of the Electoral College, which [00:10:00] elected Dwight Eisenhower as president. Frederick Madison Roberts and Pearl Hinds Roberts had two daughters, Gloria Roberts, who became a concert pianist; and Patricia Roberts, who went into business, insurance, and teaching. 

In the 1930s, shifting political winds brought an end to Frederick Madison Roberts's legislative career. Led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal policies, a revived Democratic Party challenged Roberts's seat in the California Assembly. Robert's lost his reelection bid in 1934 to Augustus Hawkins, another African American man. Although out of office, Roberts continued to stay active politically, running two campaigns for Congress. After World War II, Roberts, transitioned his role to, as historian Douglas Flamming summarized, "supporting the NAACP, the Urban League, and the women's clubs. [00:11:00] He enjoyed being the grand old man in Republican circles." In 1952, he was slated to receive an ambassadorship from President Eisenhower, but passed away in a car accident before Eisenhower was inaugurated.

Olivia Brown: Frederick Madison Roberts's political career was an expression of two intertwining identities, being a part of the African American community, as well as the American West. In an interview, his wife recalled, "He didn't like the word 'Negro.' He used the term 'Americans of African descent.' He wanted to stress the fact that we were Americans and should be treated as Americans." Through journalism, legislation, and activism, Roberts dedicated his life to the belief that African American communities in Los Angeles and beyond deserved the same treatment and rights as anyone else. For Roberts, this equality could best be [00:12:00] achieved in the American West, far removed from the specter of enslavement in the South. In his mind, the West was a new beginning for African American liberty and equality, and the truest embodiment of the American ideals of freedom and opportunity. 

In the early 20th century, Frederick Madison Roberts continued a fight begun over a century earlier by his great-great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson. Roberts was committed to expanding the vision that Jefferson had set, however; he dedicated his adult life to expanding the civil and human rights of all people in the United States. Like Sally Hemings, who negotiated for the freedom of her children. Like Madison Hemings and his wife Mary McCoy, who moved north to live in free Black communities. Like Ellen Hemings and her husband Andrew Jackson Roberts, who left for new horizons on the Pacific coast. Frederick Madison [00:13:00] Roberts took the opportunities given to him by his parents and grandparents, and paid them forward to his own family later on, the African American community in Los Angeles, and well beyond. His daughter, Patricia Roberts, said in an interview with the Monticello Getting Word Project that she was raised "to take pride in who we were." 

This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org. 

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