051: The African President’s widow in London
The British census of 1901 lists at 125 Holland Road, Kensington, west London, five women including the boarding house keeper Jane Mills. Another resident, “Jane Roberts” aged 79, born Virginia, America “occupation: own means” and foreign subject, was the widow of the first president of the Republic of Liberia.
Jane Rose Waring had been born, daughter of a Baptist minister, in Virginia in 1818 and they had migrated to West Africa in 1824. In 1836 she became the second wife of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who had migrated from Virginia with his first wife Sarah in 1829. Roberts was a successful businessman and active in local politics, where the “Americo-Liberians” dominated the Africans. Liberia was the result of a cooperation between the American Colonization Society, formed in 1816, and the U.S. government to put down Africans rescued from slave ships and make a home for black settlers from America. The land they occupied was named Liberia in 1824. Roberts pressed for self-government, achieving British and French recognition in 1847 (and American in 1862). Some 15,000 immigrants settled between 1820 and 1865. Roberts was president 1848-1856, and 1872-1876. Jane Roberts travelled with him on state visits to Europe, and settled in England after his death in 1876.
Jane Roberts was with the 76-year-old Martha Anne Rix or Ricks whose ambition to meet Queen Victoria had inspired her to come from Liberia in 1892 and took them to Windsor Castle on 16 July 1892. That ambition was reported in The Times 13 July 1892, the visit on 18 July (“Martha Anna Rick”), a public meeting with General Booth of the Salvation Army (25 July), and the visitor’s present of a signed photograph of the queen (5 September) and the gift of a shawl to the wife of the Lord Mayor of London (18 October). Kyra E. Hicks, authority on black quilt makers, author of Black Threads (2003) and the novel Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria (2007) says Mrs Roberts and Liberia’s representative in England, Edward Wilmot Blyden, accompanied the visitor who gave Victoria a quilt, and has traced documentation. The Times does not mention them – although protocol makes it very likely.
Jane Roberts was known to other black folk in Britain. In July 1900 she attended the Pan-African Conference in London, gracing the platform at Westminster Town Hall. Also present was John Archer, son of a Barbados sailor, born in Liverpool, who lived in Battersea, south London. Active in municipal politics, his colleagues selected him to be mayor in 1913, a matter soon reported in America and which led to letters of congratulation. On 17 January 1914 Archer wrote to one such contact, John Edward Bruce, to say that Mrs Roberts had died on 9 January 1914, aged 95. She had lived with the Archers for many years – “she was very dear to us”. She had wanted to be buried in Liberia, had changed her mind, and was duly buried in plot 252 class H block F in Garratt Lane cemetery. It lacks a memorial stone.
Mrs Roberts seems to have settled with the Archers by 1906, for Harry Johnston in his two volume Liberia (1906) described her: “This wonderful old lady still lives (in full possession of her faculties) in a quiet street off Battersea Park” which matches Brynmaer Road where the Archers lived. The above photograph of Jane Rose Roberts was published in Johnston’s book.
The history of the Americo-Liberians, torn by politics based on colour, dismissive of local Africans, victims of international politics, was not the focus during Jane Roberts’ long life. Liberia was seen as both haven and hope for black Americans (and black Brazilians and Barbadians too), and several black American institutions and leaders worked there.
The links, in Britain, made by Jane Rose Roberts seem to demand further investigation. In February 2013 a relative (through Mrs Roberts’s sister) in Pittsburgh expressed thanks for this site clarifying that she was buried in London not Liberia and advised that contact would be made with Liberian officials with the aim of placing a memorial on the grave.
John Bruce Papers – New York Public Library. “Martha Erskine Ricks” on The Anyone Can Fly Foundation, Masters of African American Art site will lead to the story of the quilt.
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