Liberia Observes First President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts’ 212th Birthday Today

Liberians are today, March 15, 2021 celebrating their first American born President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts natal day, he was born on March 15, 1809 in Petersburg, Virginia, the United States, and died on the 24th of February, 1876.

he was the first man of African descent to govern the country, serving previously as governor from 1841 to 1848. Born free in Norfolk, Virginia, Roberts emigrated as a young man with his mother, siblings, wife, and child to the young West African colony. He opened a trading firm in Monrovia and later engaged in politics.

After Liberia became independent on July 26, 1847, Roberts was elected as the nation’s first president, serving until 1856. In 1872, he was elected again to serve as Liberia’s seventh president.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts was born free in Norfolk, Virginia, the second-oldest of seven children. His father was said to be a planter of Welsh origin. Joseph’s mother Amelia, described as a “mulatto” who was quite fair, was the planter’s slave mistress or concubine, and he freed her when she was still young, before Joseph was born. Amelia gave all but one of her children the middle name of Jenkins, which suggests that was likely the surname of their biological father.

After receiving her freedom, Amelia moved and married James Roberts, a free man of color. Roberts gave her children his surname and raised them as his own. Roberts owned a boating business on the James River. By the time of his death, he had acquired substantial wealth for a free man of color at the time.

Joseph Roberts and his siblings were estimated to be of seven-eighths European ancestry. The Liberian historian Abayomi Karnga explained in 1926: “He was not really black; he was an octoroon and could have easily passed for a white man.” However, his native Virginia classed him as a person of color because he was born to a mother of African descent.

The family moved to Petersburg, an industrial city on the upper James River with a substantial population of free people of color. As a boy, Joseph began to work in his stepfather’s business, handling goods on a flatboat that transported materials from Petersburg to Norfolk, Virginia on the James River. Shortly after the family relocated, his stepfather James Roberts died. Joseph continued to work in his family’s business, but also served as an apprentice in a barber shop. The owner of the barber shop, William Colson, was also a minister and one of Virginia’s best-educated black residents. He gave Roberts access to his private library, which provided much of the youth’s early education.

In 1828, Roberts married an 18-year-old woman named Sarah. They had an infant child whom they took with them when they emigrated the next year to the new colony of Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. Both Sarah and the child died in the first year of living in the colony. There was a very high rate of mortality due to disease among settlers to the new colony.

Sometime after his wife’s death, Roberts married again, to Jane Rose Waring, in 1836 in Monrovia, Liberia. She was a daughter of Colston Waring and Harriet Graves, other Virginians who had emigrated to the colony.

Text Credit: WIKIPEDIA

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