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Remembering William B. Robertson, Longtime Black Republican and "Doer of Great Deeds"

We share in mourning the loss of William "Bill" Robertson, the first African American to serve as an aide to a Virginia governor. He subsequently served in five presidential administrations. Before his passing, Robertson also was finishing work on his memoir LIFTING EVERY VOICE: My Journey from Segregated Roanoke to the Corridors of Power, to be published in the Spring of 2022.

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The Roanoke Times offers a remembrance: 

"One day in September 1968, the principal of Roanoke’s Hurt Park Elementary School took a phone call from a prominent lawyer in town. Linwood Holton asked if he could come pay a visit. Naturally, Bill Robertson said yes. It turned out that Holton’s visit had nothing to do with education. Holton said he was planning to run for governor the following year and asked Robertson to run for the House of Delegates.

"In some ways, Robertson was a prime candidate for politics. He was well-known educator, active in civic affairs with service on multiple boards. What made Holton’s approach unusual was two things: Robertson was a Democrat. He also was Black. Robertson demurred. He thought Holton’s approach was simply a publicity trick. The presidential campaign was on and Robertson had no taste for Richard Nixon. Holton said that was fine, that Robertson could sit out the presidential campaign. Instead, Holton explained his real aim: He wanted to take down the segregationist Byrd Machine that ruled Virginia. He planned to run for governor the following year and wanted to run with a biracial ticket to usher Virginia into a new era. After hearing Holton’s impassioned plea, Robertson was persuaded. He waited until after the election, switched parties and ran the following year for a House seat in November 1969.

"Holton won but Robertson lost — just not for long. Three days after the election, Holton called Robertson and asked him to serve on his gubernatorial staff. Holton’s governorship looms large in Virginia history. He was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction and his victory represented a civil rights breakthrough in a state that had been ruled by segregationist Democrats. In his inaugural address, Holton famously declared “the era of defiance is behind us.” And, as every account of Holton’s governorship points out, he was the first governor to put a Black adviser on his staff. That adviser was Robertson, who died Tuesday at age 88 from heart failure at his home in Maryland.

"Robertson’s appointment made statewide headlines at the time. More than a half-century later, when we’ve had a Black president, a Black governor, two Black lieutenant governors, and Black politicians in key positions in the General Assembly, it’s hard to fathom just how groundbreaking the appointment of a single Black staffer was back in 1969.

"Robertson became something of a celebrity — an in-demand speaker across the state by both Black and white groups alike. As Robertson wrote in his memoir, 'there had never been anyone like me in state government.' Alas, Robertson did not live to see that memoir published. 'Lifting Every Voice: My Journey from Segregated Roanoke to the Corridors of Power' is scheduled to be published in February 2022 by the University of Virginia Press.

"The memoir — co-authored with Becky Hatcher Crabtree — poignantly offers insight into an era that many today don’t fully understand."

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Robertson's memoir chronicles nearly ninety years of Black history in Virginia and the United States. His life's story and activism illuminate the entrenched white supremacy in every corner of Virginia’s government and the nitty-gritty work that went into dismantling it. It serves as a strong reminder, too, that the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s marked the beginning of redressing state-sanctioned discrimination, not the end. Robertson's longtime work with the Jaycees on helping build a camp for children with mental disabilities is likewise a stark reminder of how slow Virginia was to move on mental health issues. 

Overall, Robertson's book and his life serve as a rallying cry for continued activism to bring about justice and equity for all, a point that Woody Holton makes in his tribute to Robertson in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which you can read here.

Photo credit: "Photo by John Frischkorn, VA Department of Highways. Courtesy of the William B. Robertson Library, Bluefield State College, West Virginia"