Today, we celebrate the release of William “Bill” Robertson’s poignant memoir LIFTING EVERY VOICE: My Journey from Segregated Roanoke to the Corridors of Power.
All of us at UVA Press wish that Bill Robertson—who served as the first African American aide to a Virginia governor and subsequently worked in five presidential administrations—would have lived to see his book published this month. To honor his memory, we bring you a slightly different Author’s Corner conversation, which features reflections from Bill Robertson’s wife Ruth, his daughter Victoria, and his collaborator Becky Crabtree.
1. What inspired Bill Robertson to write this book?
Victoria Robertson: In the spring of 2019 at 86 years of age, my father was asked to be the commencement speaker for his alma mater and HBCU, Bluefield State College. His inspiring and dynamic speech was received with a standing ovation. Afterwards, President Robin Capehart stepped up to the podium and read a proclamation stating that the campus library would be re-named the William B. Robertson Library. A total surprise to us! Later that day, my father and I discussed that the William B. Robertson Library needed a book that told his life story. Perhaps his story may inspire and motivate current and future HBCU, Bluefield State College students.
Ruth Robertson: I believe Bern wrote this book not just to chronicle his achievements, which were certainly commendable, but more important to him, I believe, was the hope that this book would encourage and inspire others to live a more purposeful life, a life of service. A life that would recognize the needs as well as the potential in others. Whether it was in those with special needs, or those who needed support in going to college, or inner-city youths who needed to have their views of life expanded.
What did you learn and what are you hoping readers will learn from the book?
Victoria Robertson: Legacy is a word that comes to my mind after reading Lifting Every Voice. One definition is that when a person dies, the mark the individual left on the world represents their legacy. It is about the richness of their life including what that person accomplished and the impact he or she had on people and places. My father and I discussed his hopes that when people read his book they will be inspired by his legacy, allowing the reader to reflect on their individual contributions, what will they leave the world, their unique legacy.
Ruth Robertson: I pray that readers will take away from the book what Bern so consistently displayed during his lifetime: that he lived a life of helping his fellowman and that his living was not in vain.
What surprised you the most in observing Bill Robertson write his book?
Victoria Robertson: Dad began writing his book in late 2019 continuing until June 17th, 2021. It was a warm, intimate, and engaging time for us both. I was delighted that he seemed to gain a renewed sense of purpose and productivity. What surprised me the most during that time was how deeply engrossed and agitated he became while watching the George Floyd trial. He was born during the ‘Silent Generation’ years 1928-1945, a time when African Americans endured the full effects of the Jim Crow Laws, a time when they kept their heads down, worked hard and certainly didn’t publicly express their feelings concerning racism, partly from the fear of backlash and naively thinking that if they excelled, racism would eventually end. Perhaps, while watching the trial and putting the finishing touches on the book, he experienced PTSD. In his book he describes that as a young boy selling black (Negro) newspapers weekly, featured on the front page was a photo of a lynching. Surprisingly, in an email exchange with one of the UVA editors he provokingly asked, “Nadine, my parents and teachers in Roanoke taught me at an early age to love America. Now, my question is...America, Do you love me?”
Ruth Robertson: What really stood out to me was the singular dedication with which he focused on completing his book and his concern that he had included everything that he felt significant, not just to him but that would inspire the reader. The surprise, however, was that he was prepared, even eager, to undergo double knee replacement surgery so that he would be physically able to travel and promote the book. The surgery was scheduled for July 2, 2021, but he passed on June 22.
What is your favorite anecdote from the book?
Victoria Robertson: One Saturday morning in 1968 during his Apple Jelly Sunday campaign to raise money for Camp Virginia Jaycee, my father rode in a parade in Norfolk, VA, wearing a white top hat, white tuxedo, and red bow tie. Immediately afterwards he was scheduled to board a plane taking him to an important Jaycee meeting in Baltimore, MD. There was no time to change clothes. His appearance on the flight caused quite a stir, which he took as an opportunity for those interested to tell them all about Apple Jelly Sunday. Upon arrival, two Maryland State troopers met him, ensuring he would arrive at the meeting on time. One grabbed his bags, the other his arm, and they were weaving him through the crowd. He overheard two older women that had been on the same flight commenting. One said to the other: “My, he must be a very important person,” while the other replied, “Oh, no they are just taking him away!”
Ruth Robertson: Bern's favorite quote was: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
Becky Crabtree: I hope the book serves as an inspirational letter to the next generation of leaders. My dream is that Bill Robertson’s words will keep the winds of time from erasing the reality of historic racial, gender, and economic divisions. The expected availability of the book in libraries, classrooms, and homes will reveal by example how his experiences of discrimination strengthened his resolve to continue emphasizing the values of his life: hard work, respect, and perseverance. I believe his life story breaks a trail to a better future, one with genuine equality and unity.