Books by this author
Robert Roberts was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1777. Whether he was born of slaves or free born is not known. Much about his life has been pieced together through letters and public records, but it is certain that Roberts led a successful life as a valued servant, an active, prominent member of Boston's African-American community, a prosperous owner of property, and a father. By the time he arrived in Boston, in 1805, he possessed marketable skills as a manservant, and could read and write. He may have come north with one of his employers, the Boston financier Nathan Applegate, who visited Charleston in 1802-1804.
In December 1805, soon after arriving in Boston, Roberts married Dorothy Hall of Exeter, New Hampshire. Hall was the daughter of Jude Hall, the famous black Revolutionary War veteran who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Despite his distinguished service, three of Jude's sons had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Roberts and the Hall family tried in vain to rescue the sons. Roberts wrote an affidavit years later, in 1833, to the head of the Boston Anti-Slavery Society, recalling how the family was "kept running from one lawyer and judge to another." The injustice brought home in tragic, personal terms the widening political chasm between North and South and how tenuous freedom was for African Americans, even for the sons of war veterans.
Appleton travelled abroad from 1810 until 1812; it is likely that Roberts accompanied him. In his book, The House Servant's Directory (1827), Roberts alludes to spending considerable time abroad: "But still, the rules and observations which I have given, will be a true guide to those who may study and practise them, in the families whom they have the honour to serve. They are all my own experience, for several years past, in some of the first families in England, France, and in the United States of America . . ."
Dorothy Hall and Roberts remained childless. In 1813 Hall died of consumption. Later that year Roberts married Sarah Easton, daughter of James Easton, a prominent blacksmith in Boston, a Revolutionary War veteran, and an abolitionist.
During the early 1820's, Roberts worked for Appleton and Kirk Boott, the powerful Lowell textile mill owner. Roberts bought the home he was renting in Boston, and had twelve children with Sarah Easton, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Roberts left Appleton's employ in 1825 to become butler to Christopher Gore (1758 - 1827), a prominent Boston attorney, statesman and diplomat who served as senator and governor of Massachusetts A committed Federalist and supporter of strong Anglo-American relations, Gore believed in the aristocratic tradition of the trusted man-servant as well as the American free enterprise system which made such luxury obtainable. As one historian writes, "Together, Gore and Roberts were part of the refining of American dining behavior. Robert's Directory was a precise manual of proper dining room conduct for an aspiring American elite." Gore put Roberts in charge of his sumptuous country home, Gore Place, located in Waltham. One of the grandest neoclassical mansions in America, it was here that Roberts probably wrote The House Servant's Directory, and to this day, the curator of Gore Place follows Roberts' written instructions to reconstruct historically accurate place and table settings for tour groups. As one curator wrote, " . . . as a maintainer of exquisite objects, [Roberts] has informed us of the taste of an age preoccupied with just that - taste."
Gore and Roberts worked well together; Roberts was a witness to Gore's will in December, 1826, and published The House Servant's Directory two weeks after Gore's death the following March, perhaps with financial assistance from his late employer. One of the first books published by an African American, the book went through three editions, the last released in 1837. It contains extraordinary recommendations on how relations between servants and masters should be conducted on open, honest terms to benefit both sides, and much of its advice - both general and specific - is still useful today. Roberts writes in his Introduction: "Remember, my young friends, that your character is your whole fortune through life; therefore you must watch over it incessantly . . . for without character it is useless to seek after any respectable service whatever."
Intended for black men - in the words of historian Graham Russell Hodges -- "whose work mandated external deference but who conducted themselves with dignity and skill", its advice would serve an ever broader class of workers as domestic servants became scarce and the growing hotel and restaurant business required more and more knowledgeable staff who could elegantly host and feed large groups of people. Two decades later, in fact, Tunis Campbell would write Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers' Guide (1848), with the intention of elevating hotel and restaurant service in the way Roberts had elevated private service - into an opportunity to improve one's station and status through discipline, efficiency and intelligence.
After Christopher Gore's death in 1827, his wife continued to use Gore Place for the remaining seven years of her life. The couple died childless, so in accordance with Mr. Gore's will, the estate and all its furnishings were sold. (The Gore Place Society later restored it, beginning in the 1930's.) Roberts never worked as a manservant again; city directories list him as stevedore, or a ship unloader. He was active as a campaigner against the American Colonization Society and as an abolitionist, serving on convention committees and writing articles for the Liberator. His most famous child, Benjamin Franklin Roberts, was the publisher of the Anti-Slavery Herald, a black abolitionist paper. In 1848, Benjamin Roberts sued the City of Boston to force admission of his five-year old daughter into public school. Charles Sumner, the famous anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts, argued his case. He lost the suit, and the decision became much-cited by other states arguing successfully to uphold segregated schools. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court cited the case in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that separate but equal institutions were constitutional. Plessy would stand until 1954, the year the Court decided Brown v. Board of Education.
In later years, Roberts may have suffered from dementia. In 1852 his children requested to be appointed guardian of his finances, describing him as having a weakened and impaired mind. They were afraid he would squander his estate. The court rejected the plea. Roberts died in December 1860, at age 83. He was counted one of the wealthiest African Americans in Boston at the time his death.
- Lester, Malcolm, American National Biography. Vol. 9. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.
Roberts, Robert, The House Servant's Directory, or A Monitor for Private Families: Comprising Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Servants' Work. Boston: Munroe and Francis; New York: Charles S. Francis, 1827.
-----The House Servant's Directory, Forward by Charles A. Hammond, Curator, Gore Place. Needham, MA: Q Marketing Ltd, Inc., 1977.
-----The House Servant's Directory, With an Introduction by Graham Russell Hodges. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1998.
Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur, General Editor, The Almanac of American History. New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1983.