These days William B. Robertson calls the Windsor Mills neighborhood of Baltimore home. Most days he can be found enjoying his retirement or working on one of his proudest achievements, Camp Virginia Jaycee.
LETTERS HOME-A must for all who made the trip was a card or letter home. In the usual order, Adell Clark, Baltimore; Lawrence Rouse, Washington; Henry Watson, Goldsboro, N.C. and William B. Robertson, Norfolk, write home. In insert, Delores Harris, Washington, and Alice Wills, Baltimore, get their letters off. (AFRO File photo)
Robertson’s journey began in Roanoke, Va. He was born to a working class family that put special emphasis on education. “I want you to know from the start, the AFRO helped to shape my life,” he told the AFRO. In the summer of 1941 he began working as a paperboy for the AFRO, at the time he sold the paper for 10-cents each and his portion would be 3-cents. He recalled that he sold about 10 papers a week so he was making 30-cents a week. Robertson was 8-years -old at the time, but 30-cents made a world of difference to him.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and American men were joining the army and being drafted, but the White papers didn’t carry news of the Black soldiers’ exploits overseas. So Robertson, along with his father and brother began to sell 10 different Black newspapers each week including the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News and others. ”And of course the AFRO, but the AFRO was the biggest seller,” Roberston said.
Robertson said the job with the AFRO laid the foundation for his life. It taught him how to meet people, how to count money and make change, it taught him how to read and about Black history. In 1946, as a promotional drive to increase sales and distribution, the AFRO held a contest for the paper carriers. Robertson and his brother won a three day trip to New York City with about 100 other paper carriers from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Robertson graduated from Roanoke’s Lucy Addison high school in 1950. In August, of that same year, he enrolled at Bluefield State College in West Virginia. He graduated from Bluefield State College with a degree in secondary education in 1954, but he was unable to find a job. So Robertson went back to Bluefield State College, spent another year and got a second degree. This time he graduated with a bachelor’s in elementary education and got a job teaching at the high school he graduated from. Later he would put his newest degree to use when he was transferred to an elementary school where he taught for 8 years.
William B. Robertson today. (Courtesy Photo)
In 1965, integration came to Roanoke on a voluntary basis and Robertson was asked to assist with integrating the faculty of a junior high school. “I replied in the affirmative and when I got to the school I didn’t do anything I hadn’t done at the all Black school,” he said. He did such a great job, the principal honored him with the teacher of the year award. “The principal told me ‘I never thought I’d see the day that White parents would call me and say they want their children in the room of a Negro teacher but that’s what was taking place,’” Robertson recalled.
In 1965 he was also awarded the Outstanding Young Educator in the city of Roanoke. With that honor also came an invitation for him to become the first African-American member of the Roanoke Jaycees Civic Organization. As an active member of the Jaycees, Robertson created a recreation program for mentally handicapped children that included skating, bowling and fine arts. The state soon took notice of the program’s success and named Robertson its state chairman on issues regarding the developmentally disabled.
Robertson would then put forward the idea of creating a camp for the special-needs population. Camp Virginia Jaycee, a 90 acre facility, is still operating forty-seven years later and more than 46,000 special-needs campers have attended since it began.
Robertson’s career in government began in 1970 when he was appointed special assistant for minority economic development under Virginia Gov. A. Linwood Holton, becoming the first African-American to serve on a governor’s staff. While in the position he helped Virginia hire its first Black troopers, toll takers, liquor inspectors and, after helping put down a prison riot, its first Black prison administrators.
The experience launched his federal career. President Richard Nixon appointed Robertson to the Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation. President Gerald Ford appointed him director of the Peace Corps in Kenya. President Ronald Reagan made him assistant director of the Office of Economic Development and deputy assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, which sent him to 65 countries.
President George H.W. Bush gave him a role in the Take Pride in America partnership program, which cleaned up parks and waterways. Between presidential posts, he worked in the private sector, once helping American book manufacturers bring a million new books to the children of apartheid in South Africa.
Roertson credits his success in life with his experience working for the AFRO, particularly the trip to New York as young man. “It exposed me to a larger world out there, that’s what the AFRO did for me. Not only did I vicariously grow up in the Pacific following the coverage of the war but then the AFRO is actually bringing me to New York in 1946. Jackie Robinson had just been signed to a major league contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers. I never forgot that trip and what that trip did for me,” Robertson said.