Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Last updated
Joseph Jenkins Roberts
Joseph Jenkins Roberts.jpg
1st President of Liberia
In office
January 3, 1848 January 7, 1856
Vice President Nathaniel Brander
Anthony D. Williams
Stephen Allen Benson
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded by Stephen Allen Benson
7th President of Liberia
In office
January 1, 1872 January 3, 1876
Vice President Anthony W. Gardiner
Preceded by James Skivring Smith
Succeeded by James Spriggs Payne
2nd Governor of Liberia
In office
September 3, 1841 January 3, 1848
Preceded by Thomas Buchanan
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Personal details
Born(1809-03-15)March 15, 1809
Norfolk, Virginia, United States
DiedFebruary 24, 1876(1876-02-24) (aged 66)
Monrovia, Liberia
Political party Republican Party
Spouse(s)Sarah Roberts
Jane Rose Waring

Joseph Jenkins Roberts (March 15, 1809 – February 24, 1876) was an African-American merchant who emigrated to Liberia in 1829, where he became a noted politician. Elected as the first (1848–1856) and seventh (1872–1876) President of Liberia after independence, 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.

Liberia republic in West Africa

Liberia, officially the Republic of Liberia, is a country on the West African coast. It is bordered by Sierra Leone to its northwest, Guinea to its north, Ivory Coast to its east, and the Atlantic Ocean to its south-southwest. It covers an area of 111,369 square kilometers and has a population of around 4,900,000. English is the official language, but over 20 indigenous languages are spoken, representing the numerous ethnic groups who make up more than 95% of the population. The country's capital and largest city is Monrovia.

President of Liberia Wikimedia list article

The President of the Republic of Liberia is the head of state and government of Liberia. The president serves as the leader of the executive branch and as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia.

Norfolk, Virginia Independent city in Virginia, United States

Norfolk is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. At the 2010 census, the population was 242,803; in 2017, the population was estimated to be 244,703 making it the second-most populous city in Virginia after neighboring Virginia Beach and the 91st largest city in the nation.


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.

Early life

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. [1] Amelia gave all of her children but one the middle name of Jenkins, which suggests that was likely the surname of their biological father.

Welsh people nation and ethnic group native to Wales

The Welsh are a Celtic nation and ethnic group native to, or otherwise associated with, Wales, Welsh culture, Welsh history and the Welsh language. Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom, and the majority of people living in Wales are British citizens.

Mulatto Racial classification

Mulatto is a historical racial classification of people who are born of one white parent and one black parent, as well as mixed-race people in general. The term mulatto is now chiefly considered to be derogatory or offensive.

After being freed, Amelia moved and married James Roberts, a free black. 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 of those times. [2]

Free Negro non-slave black in pre-emancipation USA

In United States history, a free Negro or free black was the legal status, in the geographic area of the United States, of blacks who were not slaves. It included both freed slaves (freedmen) and those who had been born free.

Free people of color persons of partial African and European descent who were not enslaved

In the context of the history of slavery in the Americas, free people of color were people of mixed African, European, and sometimes Native American descent who were not enslaved. The term arose in the French colonies, including La Louisiane and settlements on Caribbean islands, such as Saint-Domingue (Haiti), St.Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, where a distinct group of free people of color developed. Freed African slaves were included in the term affranchis, but historically they were considered as distinct from the free people of color. In these territories and major cities, particularly New Orleans, and those cities held by the Spanish, a substantial third class of primarily mixed-race, free people developed. These colonial societies classified mixed-race people in a variety of ways, generally related to visible features and to the proportion of African ancestry. Racial classifications were numerous in Latin America.

Joseph Roberts and his siblings by the planter, 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. [3]

Quadroon a person with one quarter African and three quarters European ancestry

Historically in the context of slave societies of the Americas, a quadroon or quarteron was a person with one quarter African and three quarters European ancestry.

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. [4] 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. [2]

Roberts family (Liberia)

The Robert family of Liberia is a prominent elite Americo-Liberian family of African American descent originating from Petersburg and Norfolk, Virginia based in Liberia with descendants in United States, United Kingdom, and Sierra Leone. The family produced several distinguished Liberian engineers, doctors, merchants, lawyers, diplomats, and politicians including Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first non-white governor of the Colony of Liberia and the first and seventh president of the Republic of Liberia.

Petersburg, Virginia Independent city in Commonwealth of Virginia, United States

Petersburg is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the population was 32,420. The Bureau of Economic Analysis combines Petersburg with Dinwiddie County for statistical purposes. It is located on the Appomattox River. The city is just 21 miles (34 km) south of the historic commonwealth (state) capital city of Richmond. The city's unique industrial past and its location as a transportation hub combined to create wealth for Virginia and the Middle Atlantic and Upper South regions of the nation.

James River river in Virginia, United States

The James River is a river in the U.S. state of Virginia that begins in the Appalachian Mountains and flows 348 miles (560 km) to Chesapeake Bay. The river length extends to 444 miles (715 km) if one includes the Jackson River, the longer of its two source tributaries. It is the longest river in Virginia and the 12th longest river in the United States that remains entirely within a single state. Jamestown and Williamsburg, Virginia’s first colonial capitals, and Richmond, Virginia's current capital, lie on the James River.

Marriage and family

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. [5] There was a very high rate of mortality due to disease among settlers to the new colony.

American Colonization Society group supporting the migration of African Americans to Liberia

The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, commonly known as the American Colonization Society (ACS), was a group established in 1816 by Robert Finley of New Jersey to encourage and support the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa. In 1821–1822, the society helped to found settlements on the Pepper Coast of West Africa, as a place for free-born or manumitted American blacks. This was near Sierra Leone, the already existing British colony for former slaves and free blacks.

Some time after his wife's death, Roberts married again, to Jane Rose Waring, in 1836 in Monrovia, Liberia. [6] She was a daughter of Colston Waring and Harriet Graves, other Virginians who had emigrated to the colony. [7]

Emigrating to Liberia

Daguerreotype likely taken between 1840 and 1860. Joseph Jenkins Roberts 2.jpg
Daguerreotype likely taken between 1840 and 1860.

After hearing about the American Colonization Society's efforts in creating the colony of Liberia on the West African coast, Roberts decided to join a group of fellow Virginians preparing to leave for Monrovia, the capital of the young colony. Although Roberts was educated and a relatively successful merchant by the time he and his family emigrated, the restrictions in Virginia on free Negroes played an important part in his decision, as they were not able to live as full citizens, largely prohibited from meaningful educated, voting, bearing arms, worshiping or even gathering without the supervision of white authorities, and other social constraints. [8]

The Roberts family was strongly religious, and they felt called to evangelize the indigenous peoples of Africa. [2] On February 9, 1829, they sailed for Africa on the ship Harriet, [9] along with Roberts's mother and five of his six siblings. Another passenger on the same ship was James Spriggs Payne, who later became a leader and was elected as Liberia's fourth president. [1]

Several years before leaving for Liberia, Roberts established a business with his friend William Nelson Colson from Petersburg. Known as Roberts, Colson, & Company, the partnership continued and even expanded after Roberts emigrated, exporting palm products, camwood, and ivory to the United States and trading American goods at a company store in Monrovia. Roberts made several trips to the United States, including stops in New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond as a representative of the firm. In 1835, Colson emigrated to Liberia, but died shortly after his arrival. Expanding into coastal trade, the Roberts family became successful members of the local establishment. [2]

During this time, Joseph's brother, John Wright Roberts, entered the ministry of the Liberian Methodist Church. Later he became a bishop. After starting as a trader, the youngest brother, Henry Roberts, studied medicine at the Berkshire Medical College in Massachusetts. Joseph Roberts was successful enough to pay for his brother's tuition. Henry returned to Liberia to work as a physician. [10]

In 1833, Joseph Roberts became high sheriff of the colony. One of his responsibilities was to organize militias to travel to the interior to collect taxes from the indigenous peoples and put down their raids against areas under colonial rule. In 1839, the American Colonization Society appointed Roberts as vice governor.

Two years later, after the death of governor Thomas Buchanan, Roberts was appointed as the first American black governor of Liberia. In 1846, Roberts asked the legislature to declare the independence of Liberia, but also to maintain cooperation with the American Colonization Society. The legislature called for a referendum, in which voters chose independence. On July 26, 1847, a group of eleven delegates declared Liberia independent. He won the first presidential election on October 5, 1847, and was sworn into office on January 3, 1848, with Nathaniel Brander as vice president.

First presidency (1847–1856)

Roberts was re-elected three more times to serve a total of eight years, until he lost the election in 1855 to Vice President Benson. [1]

Attempts to found a state based upon some 3,000 settlers proved difficult. Some coastal ethnic groups were converted to Christianity and learned English, but most of the indigenous Africans of the area retained their traditional religions and languages. They also continued to take part in the Atlantic Slave Trade operated by European slavers along the coast. The slave trade continued illegally from ports along the Liberian coast, but the British Royal Navy along with that of the United States finally helped to close it down in the 1850s.

Foreign relations

Roberts spent the first year of his presidency attempting to attain recognition from the United States, where it was opposed mainly by southern Congressmen as well as several European nations with neighboring colonies. In 1848 he traveled to Europe to meet Queen Victoria and other heads of state. The UK was the first country to recognize Liberia as an independent country, [11] followed by France in 1848 or 1852 (accounts differ). In 1849, the German cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck recognized the new nation, as did Portugal, Brazil, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Austrian Empire. Norway and Sweden did so in either 1849 or 1863, Haiti in either 1849 or 1864, Denmark in either 1849 or 1869 (accounts differ).

The United States withheld recognition until February 5, 1862, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Reportedly, the government had had reservations over the political and social statuses of black diplomats in Washington, D.C. Soon after the recognition of Liberia's independence, slavery was abolished in Washington, D.C.

Relations with Indigenous Groups

In 1854 Maryland Colony, which was established adjacent to Liberia, declared its independence from the Maryland State Colonization Society but did not become part of the Republic of Liberia. It held the land along the coast between the Grand Cess and San Pedro rivers. In 1856, the independent state of Maryland in Africa requested military aid from Liberia in a war with the Grebo and Kru peoples. The latter were resisting the Maryland colonists' efforts to control their trade in slaves and other goods. Roberts assisted the Maryland colony, and a joint military campaign by the two groups of African-American colonists resulted in victory. In 1857, the year after Roberts left office for the first time, the Republic of Maryland joined Liberia as Maryland County.

During his presidency, Roberts expanded the borders of Liberia along the coast and made attempts to assimilate the indigenous people surrounding Monrovia into Americo-Liberian culture, largely through directed education and religious conversion.

Economy, nation building

The settlers built schools and Liberia College (which later became the University of Liberia). During these early years, agriculture, shipbuilding, and trade flourished.


Roberts has been described as a talented leader with diplomatic skills. His leadership was instrumental in gaining independence and sovereignty for Liberia. Later in his career, his diplomatic skills helped him to deal effectively with the indigenous peoples and to maneuver in the complex field of international law and relations. [2]

Between presidencies

Lithograph of the former home of Joseph Roberts in Monrovia Home joseph roberts.jpg
Lithograph of the former home of Joseph Roberts in Monrovia

After his first presidency, Roberts served for fifteen years as a major general in the Liberian Army, as well as a diplomatic representative of the nation to France and Great Britain. In 1862, he co-founded Liberia College in Monrovia, where he served as its first president until 1876. [12] Roberts frequently traveled to the United States to raise funds for the college. Until his death, he held a professorship in jurisprudence and international law. [4]

Second presidency (1872–1876)

In 1871, President Edward James Roye was deposed by elements loyal to the Republican Party on the grounds that he was planning to cancel the upcoming elections. Roberts, one of the Republican Party's leaders, won the ensuing presidential election and thus returned to office in 1872. He served for two terms until 1876. While he was incapacitated by illness from 1875 until early-1876, Vice President Anthony W. Gardiner was acting president.

In the 1860s and 1870s, escalating economic difficulties weakened Monrovia's dominance over the coastal indigenous populations, leading to several violent conflicts. Conditions worsened following Roberts's second presidency, as the cost of imports was far greater than the income generated by exports of coffee, rice, palm oil, sugar cane, camwood, and timber.

Inheritance and legacy

Roberts died on February 24, 1876, less than two months after his final term as president ended. In his will, he left $10,000 and his estate to the educational system of Liberia. [1] Today, Liberia's main airport, Roberts International Airport, as well as the town of Robertsport and Roberts Street in Monrovia are named in his honor.

His face is depicted on the Liberian ten dollar bill, introduced in 2000, and the old five dollar bill in circulation between 1989 and 1999. [13]

His birthday, March 15, is a national holiday in Liberia. [4]

See also

Related Research Articles

History of Liberia aspect of history

Liberia is a country in West Africa which was founded by former American slaves. It is one of only three sovereign countries in the world that were founded by former slaves, the others being Haiti and Sierra Leone, established by Great Britain. The emigration of former slaves was funded and organized by the American Colonization Society (ACS). The mortality rate of these settlers was the highest in accurately recorded human history. Of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia from 1820 to 1843, only 1,819 survived until 1843.

Americo-Liberians, or Congo people or Congau people in Liberian English, are a Liberian ethnic group of African American, Afro-Caribbean and Liberated African descent. The sister ethnic group of Americo-Liberians are the Sierra Leone Creole people, who shared similar ancestry and related culture. Americo-Liberians trace their ancestry to free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans who emigrated in the 19th century to become the founders of the state of Liberia. They identified there as Americo-Liberians. (Some African Americans – in the more common sense of the term – following resettlement in Canada also participated as founding settlers in Sierra Leone and present-day Côte d'Ivoire. Although the terms "Americo-Liberian" and "Congo" had distinct definitions in the nineteenth century, they are currently interchangeable and refer to an ethnic group composed of the descendants of the various free and ex-slave African American, Caribbean, Recaptive, and Sierra Leone Creoles who settled in Liberia from 1822.

Edward James Roye first member of Liberias True Whig Party to serve as President

Edward James Roye served as the fifth President of Liberia from 1870 to his overthrow in 1871 and subsequent violent death. He had previously served as the 4th Chief Justice of Liberia from 1865 until 1868. He was the first member of Liberia's True Whig Party to serve as President.

Ralph Randolph Gurley was an American clergyman, an advocate of the separation of the races, and a major force for 50 years in the American Colonization Society. It offered passage to free black Americans to the ACS colony in west Africa. It bought land from chiefs of the indigenous Africans. Because of his influence in fundraising and education about the ACS, Gurley is considered one of the founders of Liberia, which he named.

Daniel Bashiel Warner President of Liberia

Daniel Bashiel Warner served as the 3rd President of Liberia from 1864 to 1868. Prior to this, he served as the 5th Vice President of Liberia under President Stephen Allen Benson from 1860 to 1864, and as the 3rd Secretary of State in the cabinet of Joseph Jenkins Roberts from 1854 to 1856.

Republic of Maryland former country

The Republic of Maryland was a country in West Africa that existed from 1834 to 1857, when it was merged into what is now Liberia. The area was first settled in 1834 by freed African-American slaves and freeborn African Americans primarily from the U.S. state of Maryland, under the auspices of the Maryland State Colonization Society.

Lott Cary was an African-American Baptist minister and lay physician who was a missionary leader in the founding of the colony of Liberia on the west coast of Africa in the 1820s. He founded the first Baptist church there in 1822, now known as Providence Baptist Church of Monrovia. He served as the colony's acting governor from August 1828 to his death in November of that year.

Stephen Allen Benson former President of Liberia

Stephen Allen Benson served as the 2nd President of Liberia from 1856 to 1864. Prior to that, he served as the 3rd Vice President of Liberia from 1854 to 1856 under President Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Benson was the first president to have lived in Liberia since childhood. He and his family were among the earliest American immigrants, arriving in 1822.

Anthony W. Gardiner President of Liberia

Anthony William Gardiner served as the ninth President of Liberia from 1878 until 1883. He was the first of a series of True Whig presidents who held power uninterruptedly until 1980.

James Spriggs Payne President of Liberia

James Spriggs Payne served as the fourth and eighth President of Liberia, from 1868 to 1870 and from 1876 to 1878. He was the last president to belong to the Republican Party.

Alfred Francis Russell President of Liberia

Alfred Francis Russell was an Americo-Liberian missionary, planter and politician. Elected as vice-president of Liberia in 1881 under Anthony William Gardiner, he succeeded to the presidency after the latter resigned due to poor health. Russell served as tenth President of Liberia from 1883 to 1884.


Mississippi-in-Africa was a colony on the Pepper Coast founded in the 1830s by the Mississippi Colonization Society of the United States and settled by American free people of color, many of them former slaves. In the late 1840s, some 300 former slaves from Prospect Hill Plantation and other Isaac Ross properties in Jefferson County, Mississippi were the largest single group of emigrants to the new colony. Ross had freed the slaves in his will and provided for his plantation to be sold to pay for their transportation and initial costs.

The McGill family of Monrovia, Liberia, was a free African-American mulatto family from Baltimore, Maryland, who emigrated to Monrovia in the 19th century. Among the early American settlers of Liberia, the McGills became established as one of the most prominent early Americo-Liberian families. Daguerreotypes of the McGill family can be found in the Library of Congress. Members occupied colonial offices, and they are mentioned in the African Repository magazine published by the American Colonization Society.

Hilary Teague, sometimes written as Hilary Teage, was an Americo-Liberian merchant, journalist, and politician in the early years of the West African nation of Liberia. A native of the US state of Virginia, he was known for his oratory skills and he pushed for Liberian independence from the American Colonization Society. Teague drafted the Liberian Declaration of Independence in 1847 and was later a member of the Senate of Liberia and served as the new country’s first Secretary of State.

John Day was a Liberian politician and jurist who served as the 2nd Chief Justice of Liberia from 1854 until his death in 1859.

The Liberian Declaration of Independence is a document adopted by the Liberian Constitutional Convention on July 26, 1847, to announce that the Commonwealth of Liberia, a colony founded and controlled by the private American Colonization Society, was an independent state known as the Republic of Liberia. The Declaration was written by Hilary Teague and adopted simultaneously with the first Constitution of Liberia. The anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration and accompanying Constitution is celebrated as Independence Day in Liberia.

Nathaniel Brander (1796-?) was an American-Liberian politician and jurist who served as the first Vice President of Liberia (1848-1850), under President Joseph Jenkins Roberts.

Joseph Gibson (1823-1886) was an Americo-Liberian politician born in the United States.

Thomas John Jackson was a free African-American slave from Frederick County, Maryland, United States, who emigrated to Cape Palmas in the 19th century. Thomas Jackson was one of the most prominent early Americo-Liberian and was among the early American settlers of Liberia. Thomas Jackson is mentioned in the African Repository by the American Colonization Society and the Maryland State Colonization Society.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Pham, John-Peter (April 2004). Liberia — Portrait of a Failed State . Reed Press. ISBN   1-59429-012-1.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Matthews, Pat (Autumn 1973). "The Father of Liberia". Virginia Cavalcade. Library of Virginia. pp. 5–11.
  3. Karnga, Abayomi Wilfrid (1926). History of Liberia. D. H. Tyte.
  4. 1 2 3 Evans Brown, Judith (March 17, 1968). "Virginia's other presidents". The Virginian-Pilot ..
  5. Mary Tyler-McGraw, "The Roberts Family", 2008, Virginia Emigrants to Liberia, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia, accessed 4 Jun 2010
  6. Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt; Aptheker, Herbert (1982). Writings by W. E. B. Du Bois in Non-Periodical Literature Edited by Others. Kraus-Thomson. ISBN   9780527253448.
  7. Mary Tyler-McGraw, "The Roberts Family" and "Harriet Graves: Reluctant Founding Mother", 2008, Virginia Emigrants to Liberia, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia, accessed 4 Jun 2010
  8. Wolf, Eva Sheppard (2006). Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 135–170.
  9. "Search Emigrants", Virginia Emigrants to Liberia, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia, accessed 4 Jun 2010
  10. Davis, Stanley A. (1953). This is Liberia. William-Frederick Press.
  11. The Times, London. Jul 10, 1962; pg. 11; Issue 55439
  12. Livingston, Thomas W. “The Exportation of American Higher Education to West Africa: Liberia College, 1850-1900”. The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1976), pp. 246-262.
  13. "LIBERIA". Retrieved 5 November 2018.
Government offices
Preceded by
Thomas Buchanan
Governor of Liberia
September 3, 1841 – January 3, 1848
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by
President of Liberia
1848 – 1856
Succeeded by
Stephen Allen Benson
Preceded by
James Skivring Smith
President of Liberia
1872 – 1876
Succeeded by
James Spriggs Payne