The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 62,997 black Americans with Roberts as their last name. That represented 17% of the total of 376,774 entries.
This article compares census numbers before and after the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Roberts in the last three centuries.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
Roberts Before The Civil War
The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.
In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. There were three categories: white, black, and mulatto. The third term is the language of the time, and I will use mixed in this article.
If you are researching your black Roberts ancestors in census archives, be sure to check the two non-white categories. Do not assume that the people recording the information were always correct.
1850 Federal Census
There were 883 people named Roberts who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 516 were recorded as mixed.
Because they are in the main federal census, we know that they were free citizens.
There was a total of 36,879 free citizens named Roberts that year. There would be one more census in 1860 before the Civil War.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. All African Americans were included.
Those who were omitted in 1850 and 1860 because they were enslaved were now recorded.
8,400 people named Roberts were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 1,535 as mixed.
There was a total of 65,631 people with the name.
Roberts In The 1900 And 1940 Census
The mixed category was dropped in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.
The 1900 census recorded 16,229 people with the last name Roberts as black within a total of 117,231 that year.
By the way, the mixed category returned in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. It was dropped again in 1930, but replaced with extra categories for colored and non-white in a way that seems confusing now.
This changed again in 1940 and we can simply focus on one black category.
The 1940 census recorded 23,038 people named Roberts as black within a total of 199,740.
Historic Black Figures With The Roberts Surname
Here are some notable African American people in history.
Benjamin Franklin Roberts
- Born: 1815
- From: Boston, Massachussetts
- Died: 1881
Benjamin’s maternal grandfather and great-uncle were James and Hosea Easton who were outspoken black abolitionists.
The young Benjamin became a shoemaker’s apprentice. But he cut his teeth in the newspaper world by writing editorials for the renowned abolitionist weekly, the Liberator.
Roberts started his own newspaper in 1838 called the Anti-Slavery Herald. He used the subscription funds to create printing apprenticeships in the local black community.
Although this newspaper didn’t last for long, Roberts later pointed out that it was the first one published and printed by an African American (the Liberator was co-founded by white abolitionists).
He also used his printing office to publish pamphlets and literature from other abolitionists and black activists.
Perhaps the most influential action of Benjamin Roberts was to take a legal case against the City of Boston. The case demanded that his five-year-old daughter could attend any white school in the neighborhood.
Although he lost, it was a landmark as the first anti-school segregation case in U.S. history.
Other lawsuits against school segregation
Another black leader in the same era took similar action in Iowa. Alexander Clark was more successful with his legal case in Iowa.
Over one hundred years later, Althea Mills won a successful lawsuit in Polk County, Florida that led to school desegregation in the county.
Other black newspaper publishers
There were several other African American founders of newspapers from this era:
Other Boston activists
Boston had some other remarkable black activists:
Frederick Madison Roberts
- Born: 1879
- From: Chillicothe, Ohio
- Died: 1952
Frederick Roberts attended high school in Los Angeles and graduated from Colorado College. He founded a newspaper in LA called the New Age and became a prominent black leader in the region.
Roberts became the first black Californian Assemblyman when elected in 1918 and he served for sixteen years. He sponsored civil rights and anti-lynching legislation during his tenure.
In the late 1940s, he lost a tight race for the U.S. Senate to Richard Nixon.
Over twenty years later, the first black woman elected to the Texas Senate would go on to make one of the greatest political speeches during Nixon’s impeachment. We cover this in our look at notable black figures named Jordan.
- Born: 1941
- From: Little Rock, Arkansas
Terrence Roberts grew up in Little Rock where he attended the segregated black Horace Mann High School.
At the time, the local branch of the NAACP, under the leadership of Daisy Bates, was forming a small group of black students to be the first to desegregate a Little Rock school.
Terrence was one of nine students who volunteered to enroll at the white Little Rock Central High in 1957. This group became known as the Little Rock Nine.
On the first day, the Governor sent the National Guard to prevent their entry. President Eisenhower intervened and sent troops to enforce the court order of desegregation.
On the second day, the children also faced hostile crowds who gathered outside the school. They entered class and became the first students to integrate Little Rock Central High.
Terrence went on to obtain a PhD in psychology in 1976. His academic career included lecturing in psychology and taking leadership roles of student mental health services and social welfare.
Members of the Little Rock Nine
Here are some of the members:
Roberts In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research.
Here are examples of the Roberts surname from three different military services:
- Buffalo soldiers
- Black civil war sailors
- Tuskegee airmen
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
One of the earliest military entries for Roberts was in September 1867.
Fillmore Roberts was a Recruit in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in September 1867 at Fort Riley, Kansas.
One of the later entries was in January 1914. Daniel Roberts was a Trumpeter in the Ninth Cavalry.
If you are researching military ancestors, there is a free index of these records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. You have to create an account on either website, but you do not need to pay for the Buffalo Soldiers archive.
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for Roberts was for Andrew Roberts from Gatesville, North Carolina. He enlisted in July 1862 at Philadelphia when he was aged 43.
The record shows that Andrew was assigned on July 1863 to the ship New Ironsides.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Steward/Mariner. His naval rank was Seaman.
A seaman in the Navy is a sailor who is not an officer.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at New Bern in February 1865. Hannibal was aged 16 and was from Baltimore, Maryland.
He was assigned to the ship Albemarle on June 1865.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer. His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. The photograph above (from the Library of Congress) shows a class in session.
They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Leon Roberts graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in August 1942. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Leon was from Prichard, Alabama.
His combat credits said:
Downed 1 Fw-190 on January 27, 1944
This means that he shot down an enemy plane on that date.
Lawrence Roberts came from Vauxhall, New Hampshire. He graduated in December 1944 as a bomber pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.