Joseph Jenkins Roberts was born a free man in Norfolk, Virginia, on March 15, 1809, at a time when most African Americans in Virginia were slaves. He grew up in Norfolk and Petersburg and worked with his stepfather on a flatboat on the James River. He gained his early education by reading books from the private library of William Colson, a black barber under whom he apprenticed. In 1829, after his stepfather died, Roberts immigrated to Liberia on board the Harriet with his mother, six of his siblings, and his wife Sarah, who died sometime after arriving in Africa. Liberia, located in western Africa, was founded early in the 1820s by the American Colonization Society.
Before leaving Norfolk, Roberts entered into a partnership with Colson. In exchange for basic supplies shipped by Colson, Roberts exported ivory, camwood, palm products, and other goods from the Liberian interior. Although Liberia was still a struggling colony when Roberts arrived, he soon settled in and began a successful business. In 1833 he became high sheriff and was responsible for tax collection. Roberts served as the first black governor of the colony of Liberia from 1840 until 1847 and in 1848 he was elected the first president of the new Republic of Liberia. Roberts served as president twice, from 1848 to 1856 and again from 1872 to 1876. He also helped to found Liberia College in 1851, serving as a professor and as the college's first president. In 1836 he married his second wife, Jane Waring.
As president of Liberia, Roberts traveled to Europe and to the United States on diplomatic visits. He was welcomed by Queen Victoria and by Napoleon III. In Virginia, powerful white supporters for colonization hosted Roberts. Joseph Jenkins Roberts died in Liberia on February 24, 1876.
Matthews, Pat. "Joseph Jenkins Roberts: The Father of Liberia." Virginia Cavalcade 23, no. 2, (Autumn 1973): 5–12.
Tyler-McGraw, Marie. An African Republic: Black & White Virginians in the Making of Liberia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.