Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh… Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:1,13)
Houston - After 100 years on the earth, James Edward “Deek” Roberts wants generations now and to come to understand what it means to live a healthy and fulfilling life.
His life began in 1914, born to Mr. James and Sarah Roberts in Hempstead, Texas.
He grew up in a different era of American history where you could not take for granted the things that we consider common and normal today. His experiences and wisdom are priceless and represent the real story of living Black American History.
His first 50 years were a tremendous history lesson that lays out life as it was then.
He remembers the days when horses ran faster than cars and when Black folk had to sit out in the yards of White folks just to look at television or listen to the radio through doors and windows.
“Young people got it good today and don’t know how good things are” , Roberts said. Things have changed and I am glad it changed because there were some very scary days back then. Some things I know that I still cannot talk about.”
Life During Segregation
In the year of his birth, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States and the United States was in World War I.
Garrett A. Morgan, an African-American, invented the gas mask that year. It was his invention that saved many lives during WWI when chemical weapons were deployed against American and Allied troops by Germany during that war.
Roberts grew up in Hempstead during a time when Blacks 37 years after the first Reconstruction Period. In the years following Reconstruction, times regressed and many southern Blacks worked in cotton fields and on farms. Civil Rights and Equality were not a top priority and Blacks had to follow a strict code of conformity in order to survive.
“There were only certain things they would allow us to do then,” Roberts said. “Much of it was field work because there were not city jobs. All we could do or (they) would allow us to do was chop cotton or pick cotton.”
According to Roberts, the southern way of life involved segregation and the idea of being separate, but equal and in Texas, it was treated like the law.
“Segregation was going on,” he said. “There were places you could not go and places you could not sit down. You learned how to live with it and deal with it.”
When he went to school, not only were schools segregated, but also Black boys and Black girls were educated separately.
“I wanted to learn,” he said. “I wanted to know as much as I could cause I always had that dream of getting out and seeing the world.”
Going to town, he recalls his father and later himself in Hempstead walking the streets and having to step off the walkway to clear walkways and sidewalks to allow Whites to pass freely.
“You had to be polite and tip your hat and say good day ma’am or sir,” he said. “When asked a question, you did not talk other than to say Yes sir or no sir, yes ma’am and no ma’am.”
Failure to comply with the societal norm of the day meant you were a troublemaker and you would be dealt with harshly.
“Black folk kept your head down and you stepped aside and allow them to pass,” he said. “If you forgot or refused to do it, you would get a foot in your behind right there or two or three guys would find you later and beat you and whip you badly.”
In an age where people talk about increasing minimum wages, Roberts recalls a time when wages were not fair and that those who owned the fields controlled so much of what happened in the lives of Black people.
“Pay was different,” he said. “Today there are wages. Then, it was what ever they wanted or felt like giving you.”
Another case occurred when he was a young adult. America became entangled in World War II and he wanted to serve. He was drafted, but was not allowed leave the cotton fields until the Texas White landowners decided Blacks could go.
“I got military papers to go to war and got papers to go into the Army, but the man told me to throw it in the trash and go back to the field and I did and went on back to work,” he said. “It was according to who you were working for.”
It was a time when looks could kill… mainly you. Everybody knew what happen to the boy in Mississippi (Emmett Till) for looking at a White woman, so you had to be careful.
“You could not look to long at anyone and better not look at a White woman. You could be killed for looking with “wishful eyes”…, he said. “I had to watch myself because I was a gazer. I always looked at things too hard.”
He joined the military in 1942 and served his country courageously in Company “E”, 132th Engineer General Service Regiment. His service happened in conjunction with the Army Air Corps’ all African American 100th Pursuit Squadron, later designated a fighter squadron. The squadron was activated at Tuskegee Institute and served honorably in England and in other regions of the European continent during World War II.
Roberts served as a construction foreman and was qualified in Marksman Rifle.
“I worked with 145 men and there were only two Blacks,” he said. “We built things and then we tore down and build up again… mostly houses and bridges.”
He added that equality was not the priority among troops, but like on the farm in Hempstead, he learned to live at peace and make it work.
“That message did not get to us Blacks,” he said. “Things stayed mostly the same. Information did not trickle down so we were treated the same way (as Negroes) regardless.”
According to Black Facts.com, by 1945, a total of 1,154, 720 Blacks were inducted or drafted into the armed services. Official records listed 7,768 Black commissioned officers on August 31, 1945. At the height of the conflict 3,902 Black women (115 officers) were enrolled in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WACS) and 68 were in the Navy auxiliary, the WAVES. The highest ranking Black women were Major Harriet M. West and Major Charity E. Adams. Distinguished Unit Citations were awarded the 969th Field Artillery Battalion, the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion and the 332nd Fighter Group.
Roberts saw action in Central Burma and India Burma Go 105 WD 45 Campaign in World War II.
For his service to the country, he holds an American Theater Campaign Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon with Two Bronze Stars, a Good Conduct Medal and a Victory Ribbon with two Overseas Service Bars. He completed services to his country in March 1946 and received an honorable discharge.
After the military he concentrated on raising and supporting his family. Roberts worked as a truck driver for 21 years driving for Crouch Dairy Supply.
On voting, he remembers the struggle, but said his work centered on not being intimidated and being the kind of person God wanted him to be.
“People would always ask “Boy, what are you here for,” he said. “I would always tell them I am here to vote and I voted.
One of the saddest things he remembers is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I was in the warehouse when he shot Kennedy in Dallas,” he said. “… When Kennedy was shot. Time stopped. We all asked, Whoever heard of such, killing a president. The World just stopped still then.”
One of the happiest moments of his life was the election of the nation’s first Black President Barack Obama. “Back then you couldn’t even think about that and could not see it,” he said. “It is one more sign of how things have changed.”
The Centennial Celebration
The celebration of his 100th Birthday represent the passing of old things and the new hope for a brighter future. It was a time to reflect at the party held at St. James Missionary Baptist Church at 5546 Teague Road. Roberts was honored in praise and song by the church, friends, neighbors and dignitaries, including State Representative Sylvester Turner and Houston City Councilwoman Brenda Stardig who read and presented Roberts with proclamations and city lapel pin. Others sent numerous proclamations recognizing his 100th Birthday. He was also presented with U.S. flags that were flown over the Capitol in Washington and one flown over State Capitol in Austin.
The church even retired his famed Sunday School bell and allowed “Deek” one more ceremonial ringing of that bell.
The deacon had one sister; Dovada Henson. He also has six children; James, Samuel, Mark, Hadassah, Dorris, Sherron and Marcus.
Family members also showed him love and affection for the years of sacrifice and his untiring spirit as father and teacher. Stories were told of his outreach to many youth in the community. With all that attention, Roberts stood up from his wheelchair after the celebration and said. “Thank you all. Remember Love is the most important thing one has to give to another. Love one another.”
The entire congregation also sang “Happy Birthday” to Roberts.
Message to Young Generation
“Back then you had to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut..That is how it was,” he said. “With opportunity and things being different now, the most important thing for Black youth today is to practice discipline, follow structure, have character and values – some will make it cause they will do it. Others will not because they are not trying to make it.”
“Deek’s” Keys to Life
His most important commitment has been to God and his church. He joined St. James Missionary Baptist Church as a young man and has served there under four pastors; Pastor Lewis; Pastor Green; Pastor Melvin Smith; and Pastor Calvin Smith.
While serving at St. James, he was ordained a deacon and has remained in that position for 47 years. Also during that time, he served as church treasurer and superintendent of the Sunday School for 30 years. He also was known for running a revival during Sunday School.
Some of his spiritual favorites over the course include relying on Psalms 23 and a song he has carried with him all his life that kept him sturdy and strong – “Amazing Grace”
A lot of fun things that have kept “Deek” Roberts going over the years has been eating vegetables, and focusing on his work with children, spending quality time as a father with his children and doing outside activities like mowing grass, doing yard work, playing handy man, fishing, hunting and gardening.
Roberts said the most important thing about living long is learning to love others and make sure you are on the right side of the Savior’s (Jesus Christ) meaning of love.
“Love and hate will always be with us on earth,” he said. “You can be driven by love or you can be controlled by hate. It your choice. All my life, I have chosen to be driven by love. It is where you decide to rest your hat that makes the difference in this life and in this world.”