Updated 11:14 a.m. Feb. 25
Bill Robertson was a barrier-breaking, history-making change agent in Virginia and not enough people know his name.
Let’s change that, shall we?
The University of Virginia Press is working on it. This month, the UVa Press published Robertson’s memoir, which ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Virginia of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
“Lifting Every Voice: My Journey From Segregated Roanoke to the Corridors of Power” tells the story of how Robertson became the first Black adviser to a Virginia governor – that governor being Linwood Holton, elected in 1969.
Full disclosure: I was an unpaid “reader” for this book. A year or so ago UVa Press asked me to read the original manuscript and recommend whether it was worth publishing. I emphatically said “yes!” and say that again today.
Alas, two things have happened since I first read that manuscript: Robertson passed away last June at age 88. And in October, Holton passed away at 98. The generation that both endured segregation and helped break it down is fading into history, which makes the written memories of people like Robertson all the more important. (A shout-out here to co-author Becky Hatcher Crabtree.)
Robertson grew up in Roanoke and his memoir gives painful insights into what segregation felt like in those years. Robertson’s family encouraged his education and in 1950 he went off to Bluefield State College, a historically Black school in West Virginia (not to be confused with Bluefield University on the Virginia side of the line). Unfortunately, when he got there, Robertson found he didn’t have enough money to register for classes. Despondent, Robertson started to trudge back to the railroad station to go home to Roanoke when, as he writes, “the longest car I ever saw stopped in the street and the driver, a portly man, motioned me over.”
It was the college president, H.L. Dickason. Robertson explained his predicament. Dickason had apparently encountered these situations before. He arranged for Robertson to take a job on campus and worked out a payment plan. All his life, Robertson had a special fondness for Bluefield State; today the library there is named after him.
After graduation, Robertson returned home to Roanoke and became a teacher at the segregated Lucy Addison High School. Robertson’s memoir relates a fact of life from those days: When he was assigned to chaperone some students going to cheer on the Addison team at an away game in Bluefield, the plan was not to stop en route – because it was too hard to find places that would serve Black patrons. The problem was, teenagers get hungry – very hungry. They wanted to stop. They needed to stop. “Somewhere between Pearisburg and Narrows, I gave in and we stopped at a diner,” Robertson wrote. “I was surprised at the welcome we received.” The staff even invited Robertson and the students to stop by on their way back home – so Robertson did.
By then, there was a different shift working. “The owner began to holler: ‘You can’t come in here!’” Robertson wrote. He feared the owner might call the law, and he hustled the students back onto the bus. “I heard him say ‘if the truckers on 460 hear that I served colored, I am ruined,’” Robertson wrote.
Segregation eventually fell, albeit slowly. Robertson rose through the ranks. By 1968, he was principal of Hurt Park Elementary in Roanoke. One day, he took a phone call from a prominent lawyer in town – Linwood Holton, who asked if he could stop by. Robertson thought this might be about some civic matter – he was active in the Jaycees and served on multiple boards. Instead, Holton had something far different in mind: He wanted Robertson to run for the House of Delegates the following year. Holton intended to run for governor – again; he’d lost in 1965 – and he wanted to emphasize his biracial coalition by having a Black candidate for the House in his hometown. This was the era in which Republicans such as Holton were the civil rights party in Virginia and the ruling Democrats were mostly – by not entirely – conservative holdovers from the segregationist era.
Robertson demurred. For one thing, he was a Democrat – a Bobby Kennedy Democrat. He also didn’t care much for Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for president that year. Holton might not have either. He told Robertson that wasn’t a problem. Sit out the presidential election, he advised. Just be ready to run next year. Robertson resigned from the city’s Democratic committee, citing the press of duties. He noticed that no one came to persuade him to reconsider, so that was that.
In 1969, Robertson ran for the House of Delegates. He lost, but the sting didn’t last long. Three days later, Governor-elect Holton offered him a job in Richmond on his personal staff. It’s hard to understand now just how groundbreaking that was. There had never been a Black adviser to a Virginia governor. Nor was this some token appointment. When Holton declared “the era of defiance is behind us,” he really meant it.
Robertson served as a kind of roaming adviser, tasked with integrating different parts of state government. The problem was that many department heads figured they could just wait out Holton. They figured wrong, but they weren’t exactly snapping in line with the new governor. One of the most recalcitrant was the state police. The commander told Robertson that he couldn’t integrate his force because he had no suitable Black applicants. Robertson spent a month recruiting Black candidates. The first three applicants to take the state police test passed. Then state police said those Black applicants couldn’t be hired because there were no positions open.
Robertson reported all this to the governor. Holton, who had a testy side when crossed, ordered the state police commander to his office “within the hour.”
The commander repeated his bureaucratic objections. Holton didn’t want to hear them. As Robertson tells the story in his memoir, Holton called the commander by his name – and not in a friendly way. “I want them hired tomorrow,” the governor said.
The implication was that if they weren’t, the governor would be hiring a new state police commander.
The state police were integrated.
This went on in one agency after another. Robertson became a state celebrity; every Black civic group in the state wanted him to come speak. He tells how Black civic leaders in Lynchburg begged him to come talk to the city’s white mayor. They feared a “hot summer” of civil unrest because so many Black teens were unemployed. Robertson said it took him three trips to Lynchburg to finally get the mayor to realize there was a problem – and a summer jobs program was created. Another time a convicted murderer took a staff member at the mental hospital in Marion hostage – but agreed to release the hostage in exchange for Robertson, who spent four hours alone with the man, talking him down.
Those are just some of the stories that the memoir tells.
Robertson had a long career in public life after leaving the Holton administration. He served on a committee for mental disabilities under Nixon, he worked for the Peace Corps under presidents Ford and Carter, was deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Reagan, he co-chaired a task force under the first President Bush — five presidents in all. Like many of us, he changed with time – from a Bobby Kennedy Democrat in 1968 to a Reagan-Bush Republican two decades later, and then came around to supporting Black Lives Matter in his 80s. Robertson remained active almost to the end; I spoke to him a few years ago when he authored an opinion piece in The Roanoke Times. By then he was living in Maryland but his affection for Virginia – particularly Roanoke – remained strong. And there are those in Roanoke who remember him well; there’s now a movement to name the city’s new school administration building (the former Roanoke Times office) after him.
We now live in a contentious era where we debate the role of race in our history, and whether we should teach “divisive concepts” in school. We will not solve any of that easily but here’s a modest suggestion: Virginia schools ought to make Robertson’s memoir required reading. Then let’s see what we all think.
To order the book, see the University of Virginia Press.