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Joseph Jenkins Roberts, born abt 1809
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Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.

Liberia Roberts









Joseph Jenkins Roberts, born abt 1809

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 light-skinned mulatto, was the planter's slave mistress.

However, he freed Amelia and her children when she was still young.[1] Amelia gave all of her children but one the middle name of Jenkins, which suggests that may have been the name of their biological father.

Once free, Amelia married James Roberts, a free black. Roberts gave his children his surname and raised them as his own. Roberts owned a boating business on the James River and by the time of his death had acquired substantial wealth for an African American.[2]

Joseph Roberts was more than half European in ancestry. As the Liberian historian Abayomi Karnga noted in 1926, "He was not really black; he was an octoroon and could have easily passed for a white man."[3] As a boy, Joseph began to work in his stepfather's business, handling goods on a flatboat that transported materials from Petersburg to Norfolk on the James River.[4]

The family moved to Petersburg, which was an industrial city. Shortly after the move, 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 was a source of much of his early education


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