Oral History of Honorable Richard Roberts
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Michelle Jones Coles, and the
interviewee is Honorable Richard Roberts. The interview took place on Monday, December 18,
2017. This is the first interview.
MS. COLES: Thank you, Judge Roberts, for making the time to speak with me today
and to record your oral history for this project.
JUDGE ROBERTS: I’m happy to be here. Thank you for doing it.
MS. COLES: I’d like to start talking about your childhood and learning about some of
the early influencers in your life. Can you tell me where you were born?
JUDGE ROBERTS: I was born in New York Hospital in Manhattan, and actually I was born on
Father’s Day. My father had his own press, a printing press of some kind,
so he prepared some announcements that he sent to friends announcing my
birth on Father’s Day, which said “I, Richard Warren Roberts, was born
on Father’s Day as my gift from my mommy to my daddy.” I actually
brought, I thought you mind find this of some interest, this is the copy of
the announcement my dad printed up on his own press. He found those at
some point, I think after I got married, and thought I’d find it interesting
and sent me a couple of them.
One interesting thing about it, you’ll see on the front, it says in
capital letters, “It’s a Boy,” and then it’s followed by, “I, Richard Warren,
was my mummy’s Father’s Day present to my daddy.” I mention that
because my sisters took piano lessons. My sisters are six-and-a-half years
older than I am. They are fraternal twins. The gentleman who was a
friend of the family received one of these announcements and thought that
it was announcing that my name was I Richard. So he used to come to the
house to give piano lessons to my sisters, and he’d greet me by saying,
“Hi, I Richard.”
MS. COLES: That’s cute.
JUDGE ROBERTS: So I was born in New York Hospital. My family lived at the Riverton
Apartments at the time in Harlem at 2190 Madison Avenue, which was at
138th Street. We lived there until I was about four, and at that time, we
moved to Jamaica, New York. It was called South Ozone Park in Queens.
That was a time when my dad was interested in getting some property of
his own and my mother as well and moving out of an apartment into a
house. So that was when I was four years old. They found a new
development right near Kennedy Airport. I think it was called the Van
White Gardens. They bought a house, although my dad was only half
satisfied because he called it a half of a house. This was what we might
call today a townhouse, so one half of the structure was our house, and the
other half was our neighbor’s house. He always said well this is half a
house. One day I’ll have a whole house.
He did eventually get a whole house because there was a set of
tracts in upstate New York, in Saugerties, New York, that were offered for
sale. He, his good friend, who was a neighbor in Riverton, and my uncle,
who lived right around the hallway at 2190 Madison Avenue, in apartment
2B, we lived in apartment 2G, decided they’d go in and buy this particular
set of tracts of property, undeveloped, in Saugerties, New York, where my
dad designed and built by hand a house, a whole house that he could walk
around and call a whole house.
He was a Renaissance guy. This guy could do any number of
things. He was by training an English teacher. He got his bachelor’s
degree at Benedict College, which is a HBCU in Columbia, South
Carolina, where he grew up. He went on to get his master’s degree at
NYU in English and English Literature. That was in part because in South
Carolina in those Jim Crow days, state higher education was not available
to black people, so you learned about lots of folks who left and went to get
higher education in the north, so he did that.
His training was in English and English Literature, but he was a
Renaissance man who had so many skills I wished I could develop and
never could. He had a penchant for woodwork, so once we got our house
in Queens, he constructed a woodshop in the basement with all kinds of
tools and vises, and he did carpentry. He also was able to design with his
own hands this house up in Saugerties. I don’t know how many thousands
of square feet it was, but it wasn’t just the design. He went up there every
weekend with a station wagon and he carted building materials up there
and took cinder block by cinder block, built half of the house that was
built by cinder blocks.
MS. COLES: Did he do that by himself, or did he have brothers, cousins, someone
helping him?
JUDGE ROBERTS: He did it largely by himself. When my mother could pull away for a
weekend, she’d go up to keep him company, but she was not hammering
nails or mixing mortar or laying cinder blocks. So he did the construction.
MS. COLES: How old were you at that time?
JUDGE ROBERTS: I think he got the property when I was still living in Riverton because our
neighbors and friends and uncle were all living there, and they went to see
the property together. He did the construction in Saugerties on our house
probably from the time I was four or five. I remember it, and I have more
of a memory of it once I lived in Queens after the age of four because he
early on got I think when I was in elementary school, he got our first
second car, and it was a ten-year-old station wagon. It was a two-door,
1956 Plymouth station wagon. It allowed for a lot of extended room in the
back to put plywood and all kinds of construction materials. I was a gogetter.
I was with my dad any time he said let’s go and go up to
Saugerties. I’d say sure. I had no skill in construction so wasn’t much of
a help. He did that by hand.
The north side of the house was intended to be a garage, but he
made it double as a living quarter on the upsides, so we went up there and
the family did vacation for the summer, we lived upstairs. The downstairs
was originally designed to be a garage once the other half of the house,
which was more of the living quarters, was going to be constructed.
People were always confused because he built the garage half first and had
the part of the property that was exposed on the south side had a fireplace
exposed to the outdoors, and people said this guy must have been drunk
when he built this house. He’s got a fireplace on the outside. But the plan
had always been that was the wing that would be built second and would
end up being the living room with a fireplace, which ultimately did go up,
and we would go up there and have a whole house.
MS. COLES: Was the intended purpose always to be a second home, a vacation home?
It was never the primary residence?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Yes. I think we had enough of New York City in us that nobody in the
household would agree yes, let’s move up to Saugerties full time. It was
about two-and-a-half hours up to New York State Thruway, very rural. A
nice area, but it was always intended to be just a place to go relax, get
away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
MS. COLES: Does your family still own that home?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Unfortunately not. I went back a year ago on a drive between Albany and
New York City. I veered off the thruway just to go look at it. My parents
are not alive. My mom passed in 1978, a month before I graduated from
law school. So she couldn’t see that. My dad lived to be 92, but toward
his end, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. My sisters, one is here in
D.C., a forty-year veteran of the D.C. public school system, who is retired.
My other sister lives in Denver, Colorado. I, obviously, live here in D.C.
So our ability to get up to that house really was not great, and it did not
make sense to just hold on to it. So after my dad passed, we sold the
MS. COLES: Going back to your dad’s printing press, what was the focus of it? Was it
a newspaper that he printed? What did he do there?
JUDGE ROBERTS: No. He did not print any newspaper. I mentioned his penchant for art as
well. Although when he was teaching, he initially began teaching at A&T
University in Greensboro, after he finished his master’s, he went down
there to teach. But when Countee Cullen, the Harlem Renaissance poet,
died in 1946, he at that time, Countee Cullen was also teaching poetry at
the Frederick Douglass Junior High School 139 in Harlem, just a few
blocks from where we ended up living when I was born.
The public school system recruited my father, who had finished his
masters by that time and was on the faculty of A&T University, it was
A&T College at the time, to come and take over Countee Cullen’s poetry
classes. So he did that, but while he was there, because he had this innate
skill for art, they asked him to also teach the art classes to the students at
Frederick Douglass Junior High School. Part of what he did was not just
poetry and English, but he did art. Some of the art that he did included
sort of visual art that involved doing things on what was called back then
rexograph machines. He would type up programs for some of the drama
classes or type up poetry that he could pass out to the students. So the
idea of reproducing was a part of what he wanted to do. Rexograph
machines later turned into mimeograph machines. Those are things that
probably you have never heard of, but they were stencils that you’d put
into a typewriter, an actual typewriter, and you typed what you wanted to
be reproduced on these stencils. The stencils were then put on round
drums that had liquid in them that would have the liquid flow through
those drums and through the stencil onto paper to reproduce items that
look today like what we get at printers and computer printers. The
rexograph machines had ink that put purple colored items on a printed
paper. Once they’ve got fancy and got mimeograph machines, the printed
paper had black print on it. But you’ll notice that the press that my dad
had looked closer to a rexograph print than a mimeograph print because
this print is purple or close to purple.
So I mention that just to say that he had a great eye for visual
reproduction. The press he used then was used for church fliers when we
were trying to publicize events at our church in Queens. He would design
different things and run them off on his press. He also had the printing
press, I’m not sure what you call them, they’re little individualized fonts
so every letter had a piece of metal that you’d line up in a printing press so
you could then run off a printed material. So he had a whole set of these
letters and numbers and figures that he would line up on the printing press
when he would design something he wanted to run off. That’s actually
how he printed up this baby announcement. You see the fonts vary in
So that’s really part of what I call the Renaissance man aspect of
my dad. So many things that I realized he did, had talent for and could do
that I never was able to achieve, but I give him credit for doing it.
There was a time that he grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina
when you really did have to do for yourself. Nobody else was going to do
things for you, and so he took on himself to learn a whole variety of
things. In high school, he was a violinist. He got assigned a violin solo at
his high school graduation. He did not continue with music. I guess he
had more of an eye for visual arts and for woodwork and for architecture
and for things of that nature. I think that was all a part of his eye for
visual arts.
MS. COLES: Going to his upbringing in South Carolina, what did his parents do? What
did your grandparents on your father’s side do?
JUDGE ROBERTS: I should have brought you a book, and I’ll do that next time. My dad was
born in Fernandina, Florida. Fernandina is now called Fernandina Beach.
It’s on the northeast section of Florida, maybe above Jacksonville. His
dad was a federal employee in Fernandina. He worked at I think the post
office in Jacksonville. He married my grandmother, who was from
Columbia, South Carolina. His wife, my grandmother, really pined for
being back in South Carolina, so my grandfather, whose name was
Richard Roberts, my first name is taken after my grandfather’s first name,
agreed to move the family at that point back to my grandmother’s home
base of Columbia. So when he got back to the home base of Columbia, he
was able, I think, through the federal employment he had in Fernandina, to
transfer to become the custodian of the federal building in Columbia,
South Carolina. So his work at the federal building was the early shift,
from 4:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. So that was his sort of steady job, but it
was not his passion. His passion was photography, and I think some of
that visual artistry that I was just describing to you that my father
displayed probably came through the genes of his father.
When my grandfather ended his workday at 12:00 noon at the
federal building where he was the custodian, he walked down a few blocks
to the black business district, which was one block long, in Columbia,
South Carolina. The black business district is where you had the black
livery business, the cab business. I think there might have been a
mortician on that block and some other black businesses, a general store
and so on. My grandfather had a photographic studio in that black
business district on Washington Street in Columbia, South Carolina, and
that was his passion. Many of the people in the black community in
Columbia, South Carolina, and other parts of South Carolina, whenever
they wanted to get pictures of themselves for posterity, they went to
Roberts’s studio.
My grandfather had a studio on the second floor of that building on
Washington Street. He did principally portraiture, portrait photography,
so he had a setup where the customers would come and sit in a chair or
stand in a certain area, and he would take their pictures. His promise to
his customers was I will give you a photograph that shows your true
likeness. The customers would often come in with their own ideas about
how they wanted to be viewed. They usually came in in their Sunday best
because this is how they wanted their pictures to be passed out to others,
showing their Sunday best, but they wanted to be posed in positions that
they had their own ideas about. They’re the customers my grandfather
said fine, I’ll take your picture posed in the way you want, but I want you
to do me one favor. I want you to let me pose you in the way I think
would show your true likeness, and they’d say fine. My grandfather
would say I’ll take these pictures, and you pick the one you like best.
Invariably, the customers would say I like the way you posed me. That’s
the one I want you to print up for me.
So you asked what they did. My grandfather was a custodian of
the federal building during the day, and in the afternoon, he was a
MS. COLES: Just to contextualize, around what decade was this? Is this the early
1900s? When is this period?
JUDGE ROBERTS: My dad was born in 1911, so he moved when he was eight or nine to
Columbia with the rest of the family so they got there in 1920. My
grandfather did the work I described to you between 1920 and 1936. In
1936, he passed. I believe he had pneumonia that he could not recover
from. So this was a period between 1920 and 1936 where a lot of the
portraiture that I told you about was happening.
It wasn’t limited to that photo shop in Columbia. Many people out
in what we called the country back then heard about him and asked him to
come out and do portraiture or other kinds of photography out there as
well. For example, South Carolina State in Orangeburg was another
HBCU. Sometimes they would have graduations or other ceremonies, and
they would contract with him to come out and take pictures.
Unfortunately, the infant mortality rate was much higher then than it is
now, and sometimes, parents who’d lost their young infants would have
no pictures of them, so when they were in their coffins, they wanted to
have at least a picture there, so he’d go and take pictures sometimes of
deceased people.
But this was during the era from 1920 through 1936. I mention
that because when he died, he had five living children of whom my dad
was one, they realized that the photographs he had taken that were shot on
glass plate negatives. Film that we see and think of more currently was
available, but it was not the kind of medium that provided the kind of
clarity and texture that my grandfather liked, so he used those old glass
plate negatives that he would put inside his flash cameras. The family
realized when he died that the 3,000 or 4,000 glass plate negatives that he
had accumulated in his studio were really valuable, and so what they did
when he died, they shut the studio down, they boxed up the glass plate
negatives, and they stored them in the under-space, the crawl space
underneath the house that they lived in in Columbia. They did that
intentionally because they knew that the crawlspace would be dry, not
moist, they knew that the crawlspace would also be dark. Those are the
best conditions almost archival conditions in which to store them until
they could figure out what to do with them. Well to make a long story
short, there they sat for fifty years.
The one thing that my grandmother and grandfather were
determined to do, my grandfather and grandmother never got beyond
elementary or secondary schooling. My grandmother was a homemaker,
but both of them had such dedication to the idea that young black people
should get education that they determined that every single one of their
five kids was going to go to college. All of them graduated from high
school. All of them went to college. My oldest uncle went to Benedict.
His next youngest brother, who’s my father, Beverly Roberts, went to
Benedict. The next youngest brother went to Hampton. The next sister
went to St. Aug’s. She is the aunt that I lived right around the hallway
from in Riverton, and I grew up with her. She was like a second mom.
And then the baby girl went to I think, it wasn’t Benedict. I have to
reconstruct where she went, but all five of them went to college. These
were college graduates of parents who never got beyond secondary school.
My grandmother and my grandfather were also determined that the black
kids who lived as we said in the country in South Carolina who didn’t
have opportunities, they would house them in their own house in
Columbia to make sure they had a place to stay when they went to high
school or when they went to college.
I was going to tell you, I was mentioning this kind of detail
because fifty years after my grandfather died, it just so happened that a
historian from the University of South Carolina was doing an oral history
about early days of Columbia, South Carolina, in the 20th Century. Well
one of the people who was still alive at that time said you know you really
ought to go down the street to Roberts’s house because Roberts, when he
was alive, was a photographer, and he probably has a bunch of pictures.
So they found us. They found my father and siblings, one of whom was
still living in the house, knocked on the door, said I’m from the University
of South Carolina and we’re doing a history, we heard your family might
have something to say about it. My uncle Cornelius at that time was still
living in the family house said I can show you some of these glass plate
negatives. They went down to the crawlspace of the house. They began
to pull out boxes to show the glass plate negatives. This historian was
totally blown away. He was beside himself. He contacted a photographer,
a professional photographer who was connected I think also with the
University of South Carolina, who came to look at them, and the
photographer was just amazed. To make a long story short, they borrowed
a lot of those glass plate negatives, and they produced a book of all of
these pictures, and it’s called, A True Likeness: The Black South of
Richard Samuel Roberts, 1920 to 1936. That book went to its first
publication in 1986. It went to a second printing, and I think the
University Press has now contracted with the original publisher to get the
rights to publish it a third time. I’ll bring that book and show it to you.
It’s been a source of pride for our family.
MS. COLES: Were you able to identify the people that are in the pictures? Were they
labeled in some way?
JUDGE ROBERTS: One of the fun things about this project was that they were able to make
prints from the glass plate negatives and take them around the community
and say some of these are unidentified. Can you help identify them? And
quite a few of those pictures got identified in that fashion. Some of them,
the family was already able to identify. Some of the paperwork associated
with those photographs did survive. A lot of it didn’t. So there were some
that were identified, and some were not. But the process of going through
the oral history expanded, and it allowed for identification of a lot of
people in those pictures. Some of them were fairly successful, prominent
members of the black community of South Carolina. Others were just
regular people who decided they wanted to get their pictures taken. Some
of them were identified, and some not. But it really was for them a
treasure trove. It’s also a tribute, I think, to my grandfather’s siblings, my
dad and his four siblings, that they knew some day this collection of glass
plate negatives was going to be of some attention to somebody and is
already of worth, and that’s why they stored it in the under-crawl of the
house rather than just throw it out. It took fifty years, but fifty years later,
it came to fruition.
MS. COLES: That’s incredible. Your grandmother on that side of the family, it seems
like with your grandfather, he died before you were born. Did you know
your grandmother?
JUDGE ROBERTS: I did. It was one of the blessings of my life. You may have heard about
stories of children growing up in the north, I grew up in Harlem and
Jamaica, New York, going down south. I did that. I was one of those who
would end up going down south for the summer. My dad, as a teacher in
the New York City public school system, got summers off, so we often
had time to make the trip down to Columbia, South Carolina. My
grandmother was still alive, so I got to know her through her 80s. Being
able to connect with a grandparent down south was invaluable. We called
her granka. I think that happened because my cousin, who still lived in
South Carolina, for some reason wasn’t able to say grandma, and
somehow it got twisted into the term granka. Well that became her name
from then on. We didn’t know her by any other name at all. Even her
kids started calling her granka. But yes, I knew granka. Her name was
Wilhelmina Pearl Williams Roberts. My aunt who lived around the
hallway from me at Madison Avenue in Harlem was named after her, so
Aunt Mina is short for Wilhelmina, was named after her mother. I got to
know my grandmother. We exchanged letters when I wasn’t down there.
We sat on the front porch of her house in Columbia, South Carolina, when
we went down there for the summers. My Aunt Mina’s son, Bobby, who
was only about nine months older than I, we sort of grew up together, and
roughly the same age. We enjoyed going down south to Columbia, South
Carolina, (a) because it was going somewhere different, but quite frankly,
(b) because we considered ourselves to be New York City sophisticates,
young as we were back then. And to go down to that part of the country
and to see the pace of life, and to see the outward behaviors of people in a
way that was so different from the hustle and bustle of New York City, in
one respect we thought it kind of country that we’d walk down the streets
in that neighborhood and people would say mornin’ or evenin’ or how
ya’ll doin’? We didn’t do that in Harlem. That just wasn’t happening.
But there was something humane about it. There was something very
earthy about it. There was something I guess about it that even though at
that young age we kind of cracked up because we thought it was country,
there was something that still drew us to it, and so we enjoyed walking
down the street. We enjoyed people, made something of a routine, sitting
on their front porches at evening time to be able to speak to their
neighbors who walked down the street. I sat with my granka, my
grandmother, on front porches, in the little rocking chairs, and we’d get
stories from her about how things were, and as people passed by in front
of our porch, we’d say mornin’ or evenin’. It was an enjoyable
MS. COLES: The times when you were visiting in South Carolina, is this still during the
segregation era?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Yes. My memories stretch back to a time when it was still Jim Crow days.
I don’t have as rich a set of actual events and memories then, but I know
that the time that I was going down there was still Jim Crow days. One
thing I can remember, the first car I can remember my dad saying that he
had and I saw pictures of was a 1947 or 1949 two-door slip-strain Nash.
American Motors existed then, and they produced this Nash car, and they
were one of the earliest auto manufacturers in the United States to have
reclining front seats. It doesn’t sound like a big deal today, but back then,
those front seats just did not recline in most of the American cars. The
first car I have a better memory of and riding in was a 1955 Nash
Ambassador that was also made by American Motors, and it was red. It
was sort of maroon, but at my young age could not distinguish verbally
between what was red and what was maroon. So I called it a red car. I
remember that four-door Nash Ambassador having reclining front seats.
The reason I mention that is because I do remember that from New York
City to Columbia was a 12- or 16-hour drive, depending, and I remember
us pulling to the side of the road at night. Dad and mom would recline the
front seats, and we were very young and small. My sisters and I were
young and small at that time, and they always brought blankets. For me it
was a joy to go to sleep in the car. I didn’t appreciate until later why we
did that. It wasn’t that we were being cheap and not buying a hotel room.
We couldn’t get motel rooms. We couldn’t sleep, in Jim Crow days, in
those motels. So part of my parent’s genius was well let’s get an
American Motors car that has reclining front seats because we knew we
wanted to make these trips down to South Carolina, and I’ll tell you more
later about my mother’s grandparents in Greensboro, South Carolina.
We’d make trips to Greensboro as well.
So my first appreciation for the fact that I was living in Jim Crow
era came a little later after I was thinking back about how and why we
made trips down south. We weren’t allowed to stay in those motels, so we
slept in the car on the side of the road when it got to be late at night, and
dad and mom, tired of driving, they needed some rest.
But my first memory of the effects of Jim Crow came perhaps
when I was 11 or 12. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed outlawing
for the second time in our nation’s history racial discrimination in public
accommodations. I say the second time because that had already
happened back in the 19th century, but the Supreme Court’s civil rights
cases essentially legalized private segregation and discrimination. It took
a whole nother 100 years for the Congress to do again what it had done
earlier. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, public accommodations
like movie theaters, restaurants and so on could not bar black folks. Well
by that time in Columbia, South Carolina, I have an uncle there who
married my father’s youngest sister. He had a deep brown complexion,
and I remember him taking me, my cousin Bobby, and his two sons to the
movie theater that had been segregated for years and years and years in
downtown Columbia. He took us there so there were about five of us
altogether. We needed someplace that had five contiguous seats. He
found them as soon as we got into the back of the theater, and he led us
into this set of five seats. Well beside his seat was seated, I presume, a
wife and a husband. The husband was in full military uniform. Fort
Jackson was a military base just outside of Columbia, and they were
white. When my deep brown skin uncle sat down beside this white
woman, this full-dressed uniformed white soldier stood up and said to my
black uncle, you can’t sit there beside my wife, and my uncle, who had a
little bit of a stutter, said, “Well, I b-b-b-bought a ticket just like you did,”
and that white soldier and his wife got up and left rather than sit beside
this series of black people.
So that’s I think one of my first memories of the effects of Jim
Crow and the experience with Jim Crow during my time in Columbia,
South Carolina.
MS. COLES: That’s interesting. I’d like to hear more about your grandmother. Do you
know why she went to Florida?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Good question, and the short answer is no. I believe it had to do with
being in a warmer climate or a less humid climate. I think it had to do
with health.
MS. COLES: As an adult, she just made the decision to leave on her own?
JUDGE ROBERTS: That I don’t have the answer to, and I think some of my relatives might
have it. I remember that either the move down to Florida or the move up
to South Carolina had something to do with the climate being more
consistent with her health needs. You’ve now prompted me to go find out
the answer to that more.
MS. COLES: Okay. So let’s go to your mother’s side of the family tree. What can you
tell me about your mother?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Lots. And before I forget the notion, I told you about the first car that I
remember riding in that we’d drive down to Greensboro or Columbia in.
It was a red Nash Ambassador. At the time we got it, I guess I was 2 or 3,
and I couldn’t articulate clearly in English my description of this car. I
was trying to say that’s my dad’s own red car, but it came out at age 2 as
“myendowa car.” And I’m going to show you a picture of “myendowa
car” that I just happened to come across. After we moved from Harlem to
Jamaica, that’s a picture of my family, my dad, my mom, my two sisters,
and God forbid, me. But this is the back of “myendowa car.” The red, or
really maroon, 1953 or 1955, I think 1953, Nash Ambassador. That’s us
standing in front of the house that we moved into a year earlier in Queens.
As my dad said, the half a house. But that is the back of the car.
My mother was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. Odd name, and we
were always a little perplexed about why would someone call a town
Lynchburg or why would black people want to live in a Lynchburg, but
she was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her father was an educator as was
her mother. Her mother was an educator at the secondary level. Her
father was a university educator. He eventually was the head of Virginia
Union Theological Seminary, and he was a minister. I believe he had a
pastorate either in Lynchburg or in Saluda, or perhaps he traveled between
those two places, but my mother was born in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Eventually the family moved to Greensboro where my grandfather
became the pastor of Providence Baptist Church and remained in that
pastorate for twenty years or perhaps a little bit longer. He was a man of
letters. He was fairly rigid and strict. He had one of those deep baritone
MS. COLES: You knew this grandfather?
JUDGE ROBERTS: I did know him. He lived to his 90s. My grandmother lived to her
perhaps close to her 90s. So when we’d go down south to Greensboro,
both of my grandparents were alive on my mother’s side, I actually did go
to church those Sundays when he was preaching at his church. My
grandmother obviously was the dutiful pastor’s wife, so she’d be there at
church every Sunday as well. I couldn’t wear my Harlem grubbies. I had
to dress up for church when I went to this church. Although my mother’s
parents were Baptist and my grandfather was Baptist, my father grew up
in the Episcopal Church in Columbia, and so when my parents got
married, eventually my mother, I guess, converted to Episcopalian to be
the dutiful wife. This was the times before women felt free to belong to
whatever religion they wanted to belong to, but she converted to
Episcopalianism. In any event, so we all went to church in Greensboro on
those Sundays when my grandfather preached. But as I say, he was a man
of letters. He had a doctorate in divinity. He studied the classics. He did
not subscribe to the trend of Baptist preaching that I guess would be called
not whooping and hollering, but he was one who wanted to infuse his
lectures with some classical teaching of Greek philosophy and Roman
history and that kind of thing. He wanted to be educational because he
was a teacher as well from Virginia Union Theological Union Seminary,
so he didn’t want to just inspire emotion. He wanted to infuse education
in what he did.
My grandmother, however, was a teacher at the secondary school
level, and they had ten children. Think back on that now, and I don’t
know whether I take my hat off to them for being that courageous or it’s
crazy. I’m not sure which, but it probably wasn’t that unusual back in
those days. So they had ten children. Seven of them survived through
middle stages of adulthood and beyond. One of them died in infancy. It
was a boy. Joseph Walter Tynes is my grandfather’s name. His second
child was named Joseph, Jr., but he did not survive beyond infancy.
Another of their sons was named Beryl, who served in the Navy for a
while. I don’t think he died in active service, but he died when he was in
his 20s, so I never go to meet him. They had another teenage girl named
Katherine who died, so I never got to meet her. The other seven lived into
full adulthood and eventually I got to meet all of them, which also means
that I grew up with a whole host of aunts and uncles and cousins, which
was just wonderful. I enjoyed that. Both on my mother’s side and my
father’s side. Only one of my father’s siblings did not have children. The
rest of them had children, so I had a whole bunch of cousins and uncles
and aunts.
So my mother grew up as the baby of ten in Greensboro, North
Carolina, as the daughter of a minister and a teacher, so you can imagine
that she had certain parameters within which she had to behave and certain
traditions she had to follow. Being in Greensboro, which is the home of
A&T, she followed in the footsteps of at least four of her siblings by going
to college at A&T. I might be going a bit fast for you, but fast-forward,
she majored in music. My dad taught at A&T, so they met each other
when she had finished her studies in Greensboro and he was on faculty
there, so there’s actually an age gap there, but they got married and they
moved to New York and my mother became a chorister in the
Metropolitan Opera. So she had a lovely voice. I remember it. She sang
in the Met, and I remember as a kid going to the Met, and we sat up in the
balcony of the Metropolitan Opera looking down, for example, on operas
like Aida. She was a chorister, and if you’ve ever seen Aida, which I just
went back to see at the Kennedy Center a few months ago, at one point in
the opera, there are some risers where singers are standing, chorus
members are standing, and I have a vivid memory of going to watch Aida
once and sitting up there in the balcony and saying there’s mom, and dad
had to say shhhhh. But I have that vivid memory of her singing in that
chorus. She sang in many other Metropolitan Opera productions,
Giacomo Puccini, Aida, and some others, so she was gifted enough a
singer to be able to do that.
MS. COLES: Were there many African American women singing at the Met at that
JUDGE ROBERTS: At that time, I don’t know what the count was, but you can imagine that
she would not have been among the majority racially, but I do think if you
look at opera companies above the Mason Dixon and opera companies
below the Mason Dixon, she probably had greater opportunity to join an
opera company in New York than she would have in Mississippi or
somewhere. I don’t recall seeing or remembering many black faces in that
chorus much less in leading roles. I think it was in that sense isolating, but
she was such a good musician, such a good singer, they were lucky to
have her as opposed to her being lucky to get in there. That’s my attitude
about it anyway.
Interestingly, she’s the baby in the family, but music ran through
that family. The next oldest person was her brother Morris. Morris H.
Tynes, Jr., followed his father into the ministry. He, I think, went to A&T,
but he ended up getting a doctorate in divinity, went to Yale, got a degree
there, eventually moved to Chicago, reared a family there, was a pastor of
Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church there, and talk about a voice. Uncle
Morris had one of those baritone voices that could blast you out of the
room, and he enjoyed employing it, both in his preaching and in joining
with others who were singing.
Uncle Morris inherited great vocal talent as well as talent from the
pulpit. When I was much older, I was able to go visit him in Chicago, and
he was a character. He was quite a character. I visited him in his church
when he was at the pulpit preaching, and he too thought it might be best to
infuse what he said with some educational content, and not just sort of
spiritual content, feel-good content, but boy could he blend it. He realized
that many of the parishioners had migrated up during the great migration
from southern states and some of the parishioners he realized wanted to
hear some of that educational stuff. Some of them wanted to get roused
and feel the spirit. So he had a unique talent of doing what his father
would never do. He blended some of the highfalutin sounds of Greek and
Latin, but then he’d be able to get that organ playing and rouse the spirit
that people wanted to hear too. He was quite a character. Very talented.
He was one of the confidants of Martin Luther King. He marched from
Selma to Montgomery. I have a photograph of my Uncle Morris marching
in the front line right behind Dr. King at a time when Dr. King said now
we have to break out in song, and I’m trying to remember if it was “Mine
Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” so maybe a spiritual, and some photographer
was right there and took a picture of my uncle with his mouth wide open,
and I know he was singing with that baritone booming right behind Dr.
I mention music running down through the family because the next
child up in age is my Aunt Margaret. Margaret Tynes also went to A&T,
also majored in music. She pursued a path first in New York on
Broadway. She was cast as a singer in a Broadway play, Finnian’s
Rainbow. She was later cast with Harry Belafonte in a play, maybe that
was Finnian’s Rainbow. But I have a picture of her and Harry Belafonte
posing for a promotional picture. She tells stories about how she was in
her apartment at night, 2:00 in the morning, dead asleep, phone rings.
She’s groggy. She picks up the phone and says hello. The voice on the
other side says Margaret. She says yeah, who is this. The voice says, this
is Duke Ellington. She says yeah, and I’m the President of the United
States, and she slammed the phone down. The phone rings again two
minutes later. She picks up the phone and says hello. The voice says,
“Margaret, this really is Duke Ellington. Please listen to me.” And it
turns out it was Duke Ellington. He had composed a piece called “A
Drum is a Woman,” specifically for her to record. So she recorded a piece
called “A Drum is a Woman” that was written by Duke Ellington and did
lots of other stuff in New York. But her forte was opera, and she studied
with some of the great masters in New York at that time.
There was a black woman named Lola Hayes who had a studio on
Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and she was one of the great vocal coaches for
many black singers in New York, particularly opera singers, at that time.
So she came to the attention of some of the opera impresarios in Europe,
so by the late 1950s I think, she had moved over to Europe and settled in
Milano, Italy, and ended up having a career that just soared. She became
sort of what I’d say is the Leontyne Price of Europe. She performed in La
Scala, all of the major opera houses in Europe and Budapest and
Czechoslovakia and Italy, France, all over the place.
I’m using the present tense because she just turned 98 this past
September. She is living here in Maryland. She had lived in Europe for
about forty years in Milano. I had the good fortune when I was 14 years
old of having my parents say yes when she said please send him over. I
want him to live with us for a summer. She was married at that time to a
Czech-born architect who was apparently nobility. He was a baron. They
met in an airport when she was traveling from one concert to another. He
looked over at her and said let me introduce myself. He introduced
himself, and after they chatted a while, he ended up telling her, you’re
going to be my wife. And she kind of did a “Bye, Felicia” shoulder
brushoff at the time, but he persisted, and they started up a relationship,
and they ended up getting married. They lived there through his passing
in 2002. They had a wonderful forty-year marriage.
MS. COLES: Did they have any children?
JUDGE ROBERTS: No children. I think because they had no children, in 1967, I was 14, I
guess, they begged my parents please send him over and let him live with
us. So I became their surrogate son for two months.
MS. COLES: Just you? None of your siblings?
JUDGE ROBERTS: My sisters were six years older, they were 20, doing their thing. They
were older. I was still young and impressionable and the thought of going
over to Europe, that would be fancy, that would be great. It was a
wonderful experience because I had never been to Europe. It was only my
second time on a jet. My first time on a jet was in 1963 when we went to
Puerto Rico on a four-engine 707 Pan Am plane.
MS. COLES: For vacation?
JUDGE ROBERTS: For vacation. But that was only a two-hour flight from Kennedy Airport.
This flight from JFK to Milano was maybe six or seven hours. Not to get
too off beat, but my stomach couldn’t handle that one, so my stomach
found its way into a bag on the airplane before I landed. Then my
stomach repeated its performance when I got to the lobby of their
apartment building in Milano. But I stayed there for two months. The
blessing of it was not just to know them and feel their love and frankly to
be pampered by them for two months, because they had no children, they
treated me like a surrogate son, but to be able to see and travel with them
when she was on concert tour. I was able to go watch this African
American woman get on the stage in the amphitheater in the middle of the
Danube River in Budapest, Hungary, performing the lead in Bellini’s
opera, Norma. And for me, that was my aunt. It was something not
extraordinary about it until I thought back on that years later. This was in
1967 in Europe at a time when black people were being barred from opera
houses in the United States in some respects. So thinking back upon it, it
just amazed me that I was actually able to see this. She was doing
concerts in San Anselm in the Italian/French border in this grand cathedral
where she was singing the full Verdi’s Requiem for two or three hours. I
saw her doing many more concerts like this or operas like this, and for me,
I guess that became a normal. This was normal, whereas it really wasn’t
in many other parts, and to see white audiences going crazy about this
black woman from the United States performing the way she did and
being able to filter it not through the racist lenses that it would have to be
filtered through in our history of Jim Crow but being filtered through a
pure appreciation for art, a pure appreciation for talent, and appreciation
for the classics and how well she did. It stayed with me.
MS. COLES: I was wondering if you could tell me how and why your mother decided to
conclude her singing career.
JUDGE ROBERTS: It’s like going from one career to another. She was doing singing, and it
wasn’t full time. It was actually part time because it wasn’t every single
day, nine to five, when she was going to the Met. She also held a job at
that time as what I think today is called a paralegal. There was a law firm
called Greenbaum, Wolf and Ernst in Manhattan, so as I remember
growing up, she was often going out and holding down that job. I
remember in the evenings, some evenings, we’d know she was going to be
at the Met singing, so singing at the Met obviously was one of her
passions and one of the things that was a result of her wonderful musical
gift, but I think she traveled a journey through multiple occupations.
At some point she decided to get a teaching certificate, so she went
through what you have to go to get a teaching certificate to be able to
teach in the New York City public school system. So eventually by that
time I think I had gotten to be junior high school age or high school age,
she got her teaching certification, and interestingly enough, one of her first
assignments as a teacher was at Frederick Douglass, Jr. High School 139
in Manhattan where my father had spent twenty years of his teaching
MS. COLES: Was he still there?
JUDGE ROBERTS: No. They did not overlap at that school. He had transferred initially to the
Board of Education headquarters in Brooklyn where a man named Lionel
McMurran was in charge of one of the portfolios I think having to do with
arts or some other administrative responsibility at headquarters.
McMurran and he were acquaintances and they had been professional
acquaintances as well. So my dad was dispatched to headquarters to work
on a special assignment at headquarters for the deputy superintendent or
maybe he was the superintendent, and I think that was around the same
time that my mother completed her teaching certification and got assigned
to Junior High School 139, so the two of them did not overlap.
My dad got assigned later to Junior High School 202 in Queens.
That happened to have been the same junior high school his son, Richard
Roberts, was attending. So I went to 202 in the 7th grade. Dad came to
202 when I was in the 8th grade. The following year, or maybe two years
later, no the next year, my mother was assigned to 139 in Manhattan and
stayed there for several years. My sophomore, junior, and senior years in
high school was at the High School for Music and Art at 135th Street and
Convent Avenue in Manhattan, which is sometimes called the Fame high
school. There was a movie that came out some time ago called Fame, I
think Debbie Allen was instrumental in getting it together and doing
choreography, but that was not too far away from Frederick Douglass, Jr.
High School 139, so I remember as a senior I would get rides with my
mom into Manhattan and get dropped off at high school. So that’s when
she was at 139.
So I guess she transitioned through a number of occupations.
Actually early on, I think when my parents first moved to New York, I
remember stories about them saying they operated a candy store in
Manhattan, in Harlem. I remember dad telling stories about how New
York City police officers would help themselves to whatever they wanted
to help themselves to when they came into the store, and my dad would
have to say I’m so glad you enjoyed that. That will be fifteen cents,
please. Because the officers just expected that they could just take
whatever they wanted to, and that would be sort of the price the store
owners paid for having a few extra law enforcement eyes pay attention to
the safety of their store. You can imagine that a black man telling a white
police officer in Harlem oh thank you very much that’ll be fifteen cents
please for whatever trinket he picked up did not allow the candy store to
operate for too long without much problem. So that I don’t think lasted
very long. My dad kept the teaching position at Junior High School 139
full time, and they closed down the store. But my mom had helped out
with that store as well according to the stories.
I think she at that point transitioned into picking up work as a
paralegal at that law firm but also singing at the Met, and eventually she
transitioned into let me go back and get my certification for public school
teaching. She got it, and then she started teaching at 139.
MS. COLES: What did she teach?
JUDGE ROBERTS: She was an English teacher. She was a music major at A&T, but I think
she wanted to teach English and got her certification to teach English, and
she did teach English.
MS. COLES: What was it like having two educators as parents?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Well you know they had standards, and so when little children in the
household wanted to perhaps do a little less than was required or preferred
to go out and play on the street when we should have been doing our
homework, they were there to remind us first things first, and once you
finish your lessons, well feel free to go outside, but I want to see that
paper you’re supposed to be writing on the table to make sure you’ve done
that first. The three of us, the children, I guess we each had somewhat
different reactions to that set of standards they wanted to hold us to. I was
perhaps the nerd among the three of us. I enjoyed it. Okay, fine. So I
would do the things I had to do.
Interesting that you asked that. I saw this on my way out. This is a
paper I did in the 9th grade on Archimedes, of all people. Don’t ask me
today who Archimedes was or what he did, but I wanted to make sure that
I did a good job with it. It was handwritten. My dad had fabulous
penmanship, so I made sure that when I did my paper, I did it with as
careful a set of penmanship as I could. It’s not that pretty, but at least it
was an effort. So I enjoyed doing stuff like that.
My sisters, depending on what it was, would do it or would enjoy
doing it or would not enjoy doing it. I think there was never a time when I
did not enjoy academics. That paper on Archimedes I think was the
beginning of my recognition that I absolutely loved mathematics. This
may be getting a little bit ahead of you, but when I finished high school,
my intention was to major in math in college. I had taken an advanced
course in calculus in high school, did very well in it, and enjoyed it. Why
I enjoyed it, I’m not sure, but I enjoyed it, and my intention in going to
college would be being a math major. I had no idea what mathematicians
did, but I just knew I enjoyed doing math and I would be a math major.
But having two parents who were educators really had some
benefits as well beyond just making sure that we understood there were
some standards that we had to abide by. We also benefited from having
not just two educators, but two English teachers so that we would
sometimes be at the dinner table and we’d learn strange things that are not
things you’d necessarily hear talked about at the dinner table. Rules of
grammar, practices of syntax, proper punctuation. I actually enjoyed that
stuff. I can’t speak for my sisters, but I actually enjoyed that. And I think
now back on when I was a judge and when I was a trial lawyer, when it
came to drafting memoranda or opinions or briefs, I was applying the
lessons that I learned from my father, from my mother about dangling
modifiers and things that just aren’t talked about at many dinner tables, in
making sure that my written product was appropriate. So there was a
benefit to being children of English teachers as well.
My dad, who did his graduate work in English and English
Literature, also enjoyed poetry. Obviously he did because they recruited
him to take over Countee Cullen’s poetry classes at Junior High
School 139, but that meant that we’d often hear him recite classical poetry.
For example, the Wreck of the Hesperus, Coolidge’s Poetry, and “I am the
master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” things like that. So I
carry forward with some memories of those that I think otherwise I might
not have had that exposure to or love for.
Obviously, the musical side of my mom, she didn’t teach music.
She taught English. But she actually was playing for the church choir, so
I’d hear her rehearsing on the piano with some of the things she was
teaching the church choir, so we had music infused into our lives. We had
English grammar and literature infused and poetry infused into our lives as
well. So one might suspect that growing up under the roof of two English
teachers might bring with it some oppressiveness for youngsters, but I
look back on the part of it that brought a richness and a wealth that I can
look back on today as having benefited me in some respect in my later
working career.
MS. COLES: That’s fascinating. Was church a big focal point in your household
growing up?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Yes. My dad grew up in the Episcopal Church in Columbia, South
Carolina. His dad was one of the responsible officers, a deacon, or
whatever it was. When we were growing up in Queens, my dad became I
guess secretary of the executive committee and had significant
responsibilities. It was a fairly small parish, but I remember sitting in the
back row with dad every Sunday. We went to church every Sunday. But
he was responsible for taking the head count, and the best vantage point
was sitting in the back row so he could see everybody who came. He’d
make a report every Sunday about how many came. The treasurer of the
church would report how much was collected in the collection plates, and
so on. But dad was one of the responsible and regular members of the
church, and we were just expected to come to church.
My mother, as I said, converted to Episcopalianism, and she came
and she jumped in and helped play for the choir after church choir music.
So yes, I went to church every Sunday. Our parish closed I think in my
senior year of high school. It was just a few blocks walk, so it was very
easy to go. I was very pious. Growing up, I said a blessing before every
meal. I said grace, a prayer, before going to bed every night. I was
actually kneeling down on my knees. Some people who saw the hellion
that I became later on would find that hard to believe. Here I am marching
down the aisle at Music and Arts graduation, wearing a dashiki, and I’ll
tell you later, we graduated from Vassar where we all had caps and gowns,
but the black students refused to wear caps and gowns. We had our own
little protest. I had a new dashiki on at that time. So some might find it a
little hard to believe that this later-day hellion was actually quite pious in
my youth.
When I was old enough, I became an acolyte. I was the youngest
at a certain point, but when the oldest acolyte, the most senior acolyte, left
to go off to college, I became sort of the head acolyte.
MS. COLES: Is that like an altar boy?
JUDGE ROBERTS: Altar boy. Right. And being the head altar boy accorded with a certain
abilities that the lesser acolytes or altar boys couldn’t do. I was able to
prepare the thurible what you would light this incense and the priest would
be the one to use it, but we would light it. I was the one who at a certain
point of the service would ring the bells. It was very much like Catholic
Church, and the differences between Catholic and Episcopalian practices
were almost nil. Episcopalians report to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Catholics report to the Pope. But the practices of the Church of England
really derived, as I understand it, down from Catholicism. But in any
event, I was the head acolyte, expected to be there every Sunday, and I
was. I think once you advance to that point, if you earn enough sort of
seniority, you could become Order of Saint Vincent. Don’t ask me what
that means, but it was yet another sort of badge you could wear.
My cousin Bobby who I told you about was in a much larger
parish, Saint Phillips parish in Manhattan, and he became Order of Saint
Vincent. I was looking forward to perhaps becoming that. I don’t know if
they bestowed that on a parish as small as mine. But anyway, I was quite
involved in going to church, as were my sisters, up until the point that it
closed, which I think was right at the end of my senior year.
MS. COLES: Was it a diverse parish, or what were the demographics of that parish?
JUDGE ROBERTS: The parish was in a black community where we grew up. Interestingly,
however, the priest for most of the time I was there, was a white Swiss
immigrant. Well immigrant, I guess he came to the United States and got
naturalized, but he was a white priest with a predominantly black parish.
We did have from the other side, not of the railroad tracks but the other
side of the highway, the highway that divided South Ozone Park and on
the west side of the highway, many more whites lived. On the east side of
the highway, many more black people lived, and that’s where we lived.
But there were still people who attended that church from the west side of
the highway who were white. When the minister in our church was white,
so at the time we were there, it was a mixed-race, although predominantly
African American, parish. And the whites that attended were older. There
were not many young white children at all. The children in the church
were black. Some of the older people who were there were white. At the
end of my time there, the Episcopal Church sent another priest to head the
parish, and he was African American. He was actually black Caribbean. I
don’t remember what island, but he was a black man, and I think that was
the last year that we had that church open. So that was the first time I had
a black priest, despite the fact that my grandfather and my uncle, and I
actually had another uncle who was one of the elder siblings of my mother
was a minister as well. He went into the ministry, but he lived in the
Virgin Islands. So the parish was mixed, but it was predominantly African
MS. COLES: I think this sounds like a good place for us to stop and pick up next time.