After being accepted at the University of Virginia, Jacqueline Yurkoski came to Charlottesville with her parents and agreed to answer some questions about how a Sally Hemings descendant of the younger generation feels about her ancestry. She looks forward to a career in medicine.
Three daughters of Consuelo and Elmer Wayles Roberts were interviewed together in Los Angeles: Paula Henderson, Robin Roberts-Martin, and Ellen Hodnett, a teacher and school principal. They recalled their father, a graduate of U.C.L.A., a mortician, and a probation officer. In 1976 he told Time magazine he thought Thomas Jefferson would be “unhappy about man’s inability to learn anything about living with his fellow man, despite all the advances in technology.”
The Roberts sisters had vivid memories of their grandfather William Giles Roberts, who ran the family mortuary before moving to his farm northeast of Los Angeles. They are proud of the Robertses as one of the earliest and most influential black families in Los Angeles. As for their Jefferson ancestry, the genetic tests of 1998 were “just a scientific confirmation of what we already knew.” As Paula Henderson said, “It was really important in the Roberts family that each person do something important. It didn’t matter who your relatives were if you didn’t do something yourself.”
Ellen Wayles Hemings, the youngest child of Madison and Mary Hemings, married her next-door neighbor Andrew Jackson Roberts in 1878. In 1887 they left southern Ohio for Los Angeles, a city in the midst of a land boom. Less than three percent of its population was African American. A. J. Roberts first engaged in the hauling business and later established the first black-owned mortuary in Los Angeles. Both Robertses were active members of the Baptist church.
Ellen and A. J. Roberts’s sons, Frederick Madison Roberts, a member of the California assembly, and William Giles Roberts, joined the family undertaking firm, as did Ivan Saunders, husband of their daughter Myrtle Estelle Roberts. Her grandchildren revered Ellen Hemings Roberts, who they remember as tall, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed, “very aristocratic” and quiet, but with a sharp wit. They never heard her talk about her life in Ohio or her connection to Thomas Jefferson.
Frederick Madison Roberts was born in Ohio and grew up in Los Angeles, where his parents moved in 1887. The first black graduate of the city’s high school and a football star at Colorado College, he was a tax assessor, mortician, and college president. For many years he published the weekly Los Angeles New Age and, in 1918, he ran for the California legislature. Elected in a largely white district, he was the first black member of the assembly. He and his wife, Pearl Hinds Roberts, had two daughters.
Roberts was a vigorous advocate of civil rights in the legislature and in his newspaper, spearheading protests and boycotts as discrimination in Los Angeles grew with the arrival of more and more southerners. A loyal Republican at a time when blacks were realigning behind Roosevelt’s Democratic party, he lost his seat in 1934 and waged two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress. In 1952, when slated for an ambassadorship if Eisenhower were elected, his life was cut short by an automobile accident.
Gloria Roberts, daughter of Pearl Hinds and Frederick Madison Roberts, graduated from the University of Southern California and studied at the Juilliard School of Music. She lived most of her life in Europe, where she pursued a career as a concert pianist and accompanist, specializing in African American spirituals and the music of George Gershwin as well as European classical composers. She lived as a child in the household of her grandmother Ellen Hemings Roberts and remembers her well.
Patricia Roberts, daughter of Pearl Hinds and Frederick Madison Roberts, attended business school at St. Louis University and returned to live in Los Angeles. After years in business and as an executive secretary and insurance agent, she took great pleasure in retirement as a teacher of young children.
Pearl Hinds Roberts was the daughter of Lucy McKinney and Wiley Hinds, a former slave who left Arkansas in 1858 for the Central Valley of California. The Hinds family divided its time between Oakland and their large cattle ranch in Tulare County. Pearl Hinds studied music at the Boston Conservatory and Oberlin College, as well as with Fossett descendant Pauline Powell Burns in Oakland. For a time she headed the music department at what is now South Carolina State University.
In 1921 she married Frederick Madison Roberts, then a member of the California legislature. They lived in Los Angeles, where continued her musical career as organist and choir director in various churches. From 1942, she worked in retail—the first black salesperson in a downtown department store. Her watchword was, “If you have ideals, hang on to them despite disappointments.”