The early history of African-American Baptists in North Carolina cannot be told without including the narrative of Dr. Nicholas Franklin Roberts.
Now, the state has ensured his story will be told.
An application for Roberts was among those approved earlier this week by the North Carolina Highway Historical Markers Program.
Local historian Rodney D. Pierce, who teaches middle school social studies in Nash County Public Schools, submitted the application for Roberts in November 2019, but it was deferred with favor as the marker committee wanted more research to answer some questions.
In addition to the deferral, Pierce attributed the lag in the application’s approval on three factors: A budget freeze within the Department of Transportation, which actually installs the markers; the COVID-19 pandemic preventing the committee from meeting; and the appointment of D. Reid Wilson as the new Secretary of the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources in December 2020.
The inscription will read:
NICHOLAS ROBERTS 1849-1934
African American editor & pastor. Professor and administrator, Shaw Univ. Leader in state Baptist organizations. He lived in Seaboard until 1871.
“It was sort of a perfect storm,” Pierce said of the causes for the delay. “I was very disappointed when that application wasn’t approved years back, but the fact that it was deferred with favor showed the committee recognized the significance of his life. Having to perform more research led to learning even more about him, which only made getting the marker done more pressing. I’m glad we were able to get it resolved.”
Along with his research, Pierce noted letters of support from State Representative Michael Wray and the Weldon-Seaboard Alumni Chapter of Shaw University that accompanied the application. “I am grateful to Representative Wray and the local Shaw alumni chapter for backing this,” he said.
Born in Seaboard on October 13, 1849, Roberts worked on a farm during the day while he honed his strong mathematical aptitude studying at night.
He enrolled in Shaw University — then Shaw Collegiate Institute — in 1871 and was a member of the institution’s first graduating class in 1878.
As the Raleigh-based Historically Black College and University was founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1865, Roberts converted to the Baptist denomination in 1872. He was ordained a minister in 1877.
Upon graduation from Shaw, Roberts was principal of the Peabody School in Warrenton for one session before accepting a position as a mathematics professor and head of the department of mathematics at his alma mater.
During his tenure of over 50 years, he worked as Shaw’s dean of faculty, dean of the school of theology where he earned his doctorate of divinity, vice president, and acting president — November 1893 to March 1894 — following the death of founder Henry Martin Tupper, making Roberts the HBCUs first African American president.
Roanoke Rapids native Dr. James E. Cheek Sr., also a Shaw alumnus, served as the institution’s president from 1963 to 1969.
Roberts, who completed post graduate work at the divinity school at the University of Chicago, became a prominent figure among the state’s Black Baptists, helping organize the Colored Baptist Sunday School Convention in 1873 and serving as its president for a decade — 1873-
He was unanimously elected to serve as president of the State Baptist Convention, a position he held for several years, representing over 100,000 Black Baptists in North Carolina.
He also worked as the group’s corresponding secretary.
He served as pastor of the Blount Street Baptist Church in Raleigh from 1882-1891, was co-editor of The African Expositor, and business manager of the Baptist Sentinel. Both publications were “devoted to the educational interest of the colored people and the Baptist church.”
Roberts was also active in education and politics, dating back to as early as Reconstruction, when he served as secretary at a meeting of Republicans in Seaboard in July 1872.
He was president and co-founder of the North Carolina Negro Teachers Association, vice president of the Colored Educational Convention, and conductor of the Institute for Colored Teachers in Wake County in the early 1900s.
Roberts served as an alderman for the city of Raleigh for two years and was a member of the street committee.
He was the only African-American to serve on the Wake County School Board in the 19th century, having been elected to a 3-year term by the county commissioners as state law dictated at that time.
When the State Board of Education met in April 1877 to discuss where to establish a state supported school that would train Black teachers, Roberts, representing Northampton County, was among those men invited to attend.
“Rodney Pierce continues to find interesting people and events from our shared history and we are pleased to highlight some of the stories on our state highway historical markers,” DCNR Research Supervisor Ansley Wegner said.
Since 2018, Pierce has had five historical markers approved by the state: Three by the Highway Historical Marker Committee — Louis Austin, Nicholas F. Roberts, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company — and two through the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission’s Civil Rights Trail — Johnson v. Branch and the Halifax County Voters Movement.
The Roberts marker is his first in Northampton County. “I plan on getting more markers commemorating African American history in eastern North Carolina, either through the state historical marker committee or the Civil Rights Trail initiative,” said the eighth-year educator.
Roberts will be the 16th marker overall for Northampton County.
The last was for Paul Rose in 2007. The dedication ceremony will likely be in the late summer or early fall.