Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809-1876), Liberia's first President from 1848-1856 and 1872-1876, was born free in Norfolk, Virginia. His father is rumored to be a Welsh planter to whom his mother, Amelia, was once enslaved and later set free by him. All but one of her children had the middle name "Jenkins," suggesting that this was the name of the planter. Once freed, Amelia married James Roberts, a Free Black man, who helped raise her seven children.
James Roberts, Sr. owned a boating business on the James River which transported materials from Petersburg to Norfolk along the river. When Roberts, Jr. was young his family moved to Petersburg. Soon thereafter his father died and the younger Roberts took over his father's business as a shipping merchant. In 1828, Roberts married an 18-year-old woman named Sarah and they had a child.
In 1829, Roberts and his family (including his wife and child, mother, and five of his six siblings) emigrated to Liberia, where he continued to operate a successful trading partnership with William Nelson Colson of Petersburg. His first wife died shortly after their arrival and he remarried Jane Rose Waring, the daughter of two other Norfolk/Petersburg immigrants.
In 1833, Joseph Roberts became a high sheriff of the colony of Liberia. In 1839, he was appointed vice governor by the American Colonization Society and in 1841, was appointed the first mixed-race governor of Liberia, after the death of the previous governor, Thomas Buchanan. Roberts called for a legislative vote to decide on independence, which was declared in 1847. The first presidential election was held later that year, on October 5th, and Roberts was sworn into office on January 3, 1848. During this first term he served for eight years, until 1856. Later, he was again elected, serving for two terms as Liberia's seventh President, from 1872 to 1876.
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Geographical and Contact Information
Marker is at the intersection of W. Wythe Street (U.S. 1) and S. Sycamore Street, on the left when traveling east on W. Wythe Street