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Meeting the Descendants: Bill Roberson

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

William Neff "Bill" Roberson, 84, of Los Angeles, California, poses with a portrait of his father, William Anthony Roberson – a 1986 pastel by San Pedro artist Don McDowell, in honor of the elder Roberson's tenure as president of the San Pedro Art Association. Photo by Phyllis Codling McLaughlin.

By Phyllis Codling McLaughlin

It was a long day, but it was so much fun finally getting to meet – in person! – William Neff "Bill" Roberson, a second-great-grandson of Robert and Celia (Catchings) Jefferson. I'm well acquainted with his DNA results and some of his matches who have lead me back to common ancestors, including President Thomas Jefferson and other related families.

I landed at Los Angeles airport, the infamous LAX, just after 8 a.m. Pacific Time on Wednesday, July 27. I discovered early weekday mornings are a great time to fly, at least out of Indianapolis. Lines for baggage check and the TSA security checkpoint were short, and I was at my gate in plenty of time. Sadly, not in time to buy a coffee for the flight. But, turns out Delta has pretty good coffee on board.

Skipping over two time zones made it appear, on paper, that my 2,000-mile-plus trip took just about an hour. Basically, though, I had pulled an all-nighter. It's been a long time since I've done that, and as I would soon turn 60, I felt every bit of it.

I felt it most when the shuttle dropped me off at the airport hotel that I would call home for the next two nights. I realized my folly: Basking in the glory of snagging that direct flight for only $15 more than my original flight – which would have included an hours-long layover in Atlanta and then on to Los Angeles, it didn't occur to me that I would arrive hours before I could check into my room.

Standing at the counter just before 9 a.m., I was told my room wouldn't be ready until at least 1 p.m. I turned over my luggage and a backpack filled with my camera equipment to the security guard for safe-keeping. I wandered back into the lobby to see if there was still coffee (there wasn't) and if I could find a comfy, clean place to sit with my laptop (I didn't). In fact, the lobby was pretty nasty after the breakfast surge.

So, I walked across the busy four-lane West Century Boulevard to the more expensive hotel that I wish I could have stayed in – the Westin. I enjoyed coffee along with an excellent serving of eggs benedict (house-made hollandaise is the only way to go). After eating, I moseyed into the Westin lobby and plugged in my laptop.

Though I would be in L.A. until Friday morning, Wednesday turned out to be the best day to visit with Bill, who picked me up at the hotel about 2:30 p.m. That was only about an hour after I reclaimed my luggage and hauled it up to my room on the fifth floor. I thought I would have time for a shower, but after running the water for almost 10 minutes just to get to "tepid" I turned off the tap. Considering the dire situation the southwest United States is facing today, I found the situation appalling.

Downstairs, I found Bill waiting for me in his late-model dark-blue Mazda. He was dressed very causually, wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt that sported the logo of a popular fishing spot.

At 84 years old, Bill stands about 5'6" and appears to be in astoundingly good health; he could honestly pass for someone in his early 60s. His personality and stamina belied the fact that he was recovering from a very recent surgery to treat a pulmonary embolism.

"Genetics?" he asked, grinning as he referred to the man we believe is his third-great-grandfather – Thomas Jefferson, who also enjoyed good health into his 80s..

"Probably," I replied, grinning back.

We arrived at the senior apartment complex where Bill now lives – a compact but sunny one-bedroom space. Said bedroom is used as an office; his sleeping quarters are in the living room.

He candidly admits that he and his family benefitted from his long career as an attorney specializing in insurance cases, and is unapologetic for being on what some might call "the wrong end" of the litigation spectrum. Simply, he said, the job paid well and enabled him to provide a very comfortable life and a solid education for his son and daughter.

"Retirement" doesn't seem to be a word in Bill's vocabulary. He continues to work, ghost-writing legal documents for another attorney.

A Link to the Founding of a Nation

Settling into an antique chair next to a gorgeous Lincoln secretary, once owned by his great-grandmother Lucy Jefferson Roberson, Bill started talking about his own childhood, his parents, and a story he had once heard that they were descendants of the third president, Thomas Jefferson.

"I'm not sure that I found out directly; my father never told me," Bill said. "I have no idea why [he didn't talk about it], and I'm not going to speculate. ... But my cousin, Frances, sure as heck mixed that in among all the many wild family stories that I heard out of her mouth. ... [She] told me all kinds of BS stories when I was a kid. I got to the point where I discounted anything and everything cousin Frances had to say."

But reading through what he calls his father's "Red Books," –– dark-red report covers stuffed with family documents and bearing the name of his father's firm, Roberson & Rutherford (an interesting coincidence?) –– Bill said he found a photocopy of the 1879 Indianapolis Journal article featuring Robert Jefferson's life story. It was the same article I found in the Jefferson County History Center archives that set me on my quest to learn about Robert more than five years ago.

"I read it," he said. "You know, I'm lawyer-trained and we deal in hard evidence – 'beyond a reasonable doubt' and that kind of burden of proof. To me, it was a 'maybe.' ... I had the newspaper article, the only hard data. I mentally rejected it, because anyone can say anything" to a newspaper reporter. (I flinched; anyone can only say anything to a newspaper reporter who quotes them without following up on what he or she is told. Just sayin'.)

When I contacted him a few years ago, he was eager to take the commercial DNA test I sent to him, paid for with a generous grant from the Jefferson County (IN) Genealogical Society. Seeing the results, which included ethnicity estimates leading him to several places in sub-Saharan Africa, told him all he needed to know.

It was clear that, somewhere in his background, are ancestors who were enslaved. Slavery was introduced to American in 1619 and continued to be legal in the United States until the Civil War in the 1860s, which brought with it Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all men and women of color who had been human chattel for wealthy white plantation owners and businessmen.

Bill said he recalled thinking Robert had been born in Georgetown, part of the District of Columbia, rather than in Charles Town, which was part of Northern Virginia until West Virginians organized their own state to protest Virginia's secession during the Civil War.

That didn't make sense, he said. But, after his test results and our first telephone conversation more than a year ago, he said, the idea began to coalesce. "I learned about Berkeley Springs and that [Jefferson] had a friend in Charles Town," which is halfway between D.C. and the springs – a likely place of sanctuary for the man who had been inaugurated as president in 1801, after winning a hard-fought election. Berkeley Springs (originally a town known as Bath, Va.) was created as a resort by Jefferson's friend and mentor, George Washington, our first president.

Berkeley Springs would be a chance to get out of Washington, Bill said, and a man like Jefferson would have "political friends who make sure all your needs are taken care of. I'm sure the president had that kind of friend in Charles Town."

That friend was Edward Christian, whose enslaved mulatto housekeeper Millie would give birth to Jefferson's son, Robert, in 1803. Not much is known about Christian, who died alone and apparently poor in 1820, or his wife Harriet, who I believe had the fortune, but died in 1811. Court documents from that decade show Millie had Robert and three other sons by 1817, when the family was used as collateral to secure repayment of an outstanding debt and, ultimately, sold out of Christian's possession.

"It comes together now in a way that I have certainty, as near as possible, and I'm comfortable with" being a descendant of the president. "I've always been a fan of Thomas Jefferson. I'm a Democrat and he is the founder of our party."

Even before Bill learned about his connection to Jefferson, "I liked to channel him. I actually would say to myself, 'What would Jefferson think of this?' ... I'm comfortable in my skin being a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. I don't broadcast it, but I want to [talk about it] in the context of raising America, not in the context of 'we've found dirty laundry about one of our Founding Fathers.' And in my case, he really is a founding father."

Coming to terms with being a descendant of enslaved people, he admits, is "a work in progress. It's caused me to read up on things, and it's kind of mind-expanding in a way," Bill said, noting that his bookshelf now includeds a copy of "The 1619 Project," compiled by The New York Times, and "How the Word is Passed," by Clint Smith.

"But I'm not there yet."

One of his friends, a former city-councilman who happens to be black and works with Bill on a local human-rights commission, is one of Bill's few confidants regarding his ancestry and what it means. "He loves it. We've had good talks about it."

But he says he often catches himself watching other white Americans when he's out and about, wondering how many of them may also have "a bit of Africa" flowing through their veins. He believes that DNA studies could be an important key toward healing race relations in the United States.

"The more we do DNA studies, the more we're going to realize there are probably millions of Americans who have at least some small degree of [non-white, non-European] ancestry," Bill said. "And we would all realize we are all part of the Human Race – not black, not white. I'm comfortable in my skin because I am a member of the Human Race."

But, he added, that membership comes with certain responsibility. "It imposes proactive duties to make sure that nobody else around you says, 'I'm better, you're worse,'" he said, based solely on the color of one's skin.

The Importance of Education

Before I contacted him, Bill had never heard of Eleutherian College – an institution founded in 1848 in Jefferson County, Indiana, to educate students regardless of color or gender, which his great-grandmother Lucy Jefferson Roberson attended as a young girl. But, he was always well aware of Lucy's intelligence and love for education.

Lucy was a well-educated woman, especially for her time and in spite of the fact she and her sister, Georgiana, had been born into slavery in Canton, Mississippi, in 1839 and 1841, respectively. "The words 'slave' or 'slavery' never came out of anyone's mouth, that I know of," Bill recalled. "They just didn't talk about it."

But, he said, Lucy "was an educated lady, and she was very insistent on education. So, my grandfather [architect Francis J. Roberson] was able to get an excellent education, including architecture school in Germany, as well as a trip though Europe and even Morocco, in North Africa," Bill said. "She was apparently very possessed of her faculties right up to her death in 1931. My dad spoke highly of her, and I think my mother was impressed, too."

Bill's uncle, Francis Rassier Roberson, also was an accomplished architect. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, he served as a regional architect for the National Park Service. One of his creations, the visitors center at Mount Rushmore National Park, was featured in the Albert Hitchcock film, "North by Northwest," starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

Bill's father, William Anthony Roberson, was a successful engineer who held a number of patents, among them – a kiln designed for slagging steel – is used worldwide. "The kiln had to have the right angle, the right heat, and the right brickwork" to do the job, Bill said. By 1936, as England was preparing for war against a threatening Nazi Germany, Bill's father benefitted from numerous "secret" contracts in place by the U.S. Navy, which was helping to build ships for the British.

As a well-educated person and an accomplished attorney, Bill fits right in with his Roberson second-cousins, whose professions include law, architecture, engineering and even botany. One has to deduct, with this information, that Robert and Celia enrolling their daughters into Eleutherian College in the 1850s must have had a significant impact on the education and quality of life enjoyed by their many descendants in the century-and-a-half that has followed. Their stories will be added to this website in the next couple of weeks.

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