Frederick Madison Roberts was an American newspaper owner and editor, educator and business owner. He became the first known man of African American descent elected to the California State Assembly. He served there for 16 years and became known as “dean of the assembly.” He has been honored as the first person of African American descent to be elected to public office among the states on the West Coast.
Roberts was a great-grandson of Sally Hemings of Monticello and President Thomas Jefferson.
Roberts was born on September 14, 1879, in Chillicothe, Ohio, the son of Andrew Jackson Roberts (1852–1927), a graduate of Oberlin College, and Ellen Wayles Hemings (1856–1940), the daughter of Madison Hemings and Mary Hughes McCoy, a free woman of color.
When Frederick was 6, his family moved in 1885 to Los Angeles, where his father established the first Black-owned mortuary in the city. Frederick attended Los Angeles High School and became its first known graduate of African American descent.
Roberts began college at the University of Southern California where he majored in pre-law. He continued at Colorado College, where he graduated. He also attended the Barnes-Worsham School of Embalming and Mortuary Science.
In 1908, Roberts started editing the Colorado Springs Light newspaper. While in Colorado, he also served as deputy assessor for El Paso County. He went to Mississippi where he served some years as an educator.
In 1912, Roberts returned to Los Angeles, where he founded The New Age Dispatch newspaper (later called New Age), which he edited until 1948. When he partnered with his father in the mortuary business, they named it A.J. Roberts & Son. Eventually he took it over.
As a newspaper editor and business owner, Roberts became a prominent leader in the growing African American community of Los Angeles.
In 1918, Roberts was elected to the California State Assembly from the 62nd District as a Republican in a hard-fought campaign, during which his chief rival made racial slurs against him. While in office, Roberts sponsored legislation to establish the University of California at Los Angeles and improve public education, and he proposed several civil rights and anti-lynching measures.
Roberts was defeated by a Democratic African American candidate, Augustus F. Hawkins. Following his 1934 California State Assembly defeat, Roberts ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives on two occasions. Until then, no African American had yet been elected to represent California in the United States Congress.
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*