Greater LA remembers Frederick Madison Roberts, the first Black American to serve in the California Legislature. In 1918, he ran for state Assembly and won, even during a time of deep hostility for Black people. He served four terms in the Assembly and became known as “the dean” there for his decorum and bipartisanship.
In his family lineage alone, Roberts exemplified a complicated America: He was the great-grandson of Sally Hemings, who was enslaved by President and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Yet, Roberts also serves as an example of someone who moved the needle in a positive direction for Black Americans.
“It’s important to look at a hidden history of California and African Americans who’ve been in California since before the Gold Rush. Frederick Roberts was a leader in the community. He was a well-known figure. He published a newspaper, ‘The New Age.’ He inherited a mortuary business that his father and some business partners established in Los Angeles. He was better off than most residents, no matter what their color was in Los Angeles. And he had great standing,” says Susan Anderson, history curator at the California African American Museum.
When Roberts ran for the California Assembly, he ran in a district that was majority white. “He actually set the standard for African American elected officials who won political office. Because in later generations, we saw a similar phenomenon where someone in a majority white district would win office. That certainly was the case when Tom Bradley ran … and helped break the color line on the City Council. Tom Bradley won in a district that was one-third African American residents.”
She continues, “So when Roberts ran in 1918, it’s clear that this was a person who had a great deal of optimism, high expectations he was able to build probably the first multiethnic political coalition in Los Angeles history by putting together … white and Black Republicans, progressive party members, and others who brought him to victory in that first Assembly race in 1918.”