(This is the fourth in our weekly series of Clarksville Faces of Women’s History profiles for Women’s History Month.)
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are recognizing the faces of Clarksville who have broken down barriers for women.
This week’s spotlight is on Ella Roberts -- a leader in civic, educational and religious activities that bettered the Clarksville community for women and African-Americans.
Ella Roberts was born in Windsor, Ill., on June 15, 1880. She excelled academically - completing 12 grades in 10 years in an all-white school. She was the first African-American to graduate in Shelby County, Ill., and graduated magna cum laude. At graduation, she gave a speech on “Politics in Local Affairs” which foreshadowed a life of civic activism and concern for the betterment of her community.
Roberts came to Tennessee to visit relatives and never left. She obtained a Tennessee teacher’s certificate and taught at Port Royal School in Montgomery County. In 1904 she married Ewing Daniel Roberts, a Clarksville native and prominent businessman, and moved to Clarksville where they had nine children.
As a civic leader and mother, she accorded great importance to the education of her children and others. In 1919, she was among the first signers of a petition to the Clarksville Board of Education that expressed concern about the Colored School, citing the quality and qualifications of the staff, the need for High School courses to be added to the curriculum, and urged more teachers and the allocation of greater resources to the school. The petition also called for the rigid enforcement of the compulsory school law. The petitioners stated they “have done what we could in a helpful way for the children attending school and stand for the betterment and to uplift our people as good citizens….” The group urged the Board’s help “to make our School the equal of any.”
In 1922, she was the organizer and first president of The Crocus Art and Study Club. The first meeting was held in her living room by a group of women desirous of self-improvement through the study of literature, art and the promotion of health, education, welfare and cultural activities throughout the community. For more than a half-century, the Crocus Art and Study Club, with Roberts as president and vice president for more than a decade, had a major impact on the life of the Clarksville community. The Club participated in the sesquicentennial celebration of the City of Clarksville. In November 1972, the club celebrated its 50th anniversary at the home of Mrs. Robert T. Burt, one of the founders.
After Burt High School was built in 1923 on Franklin Street near Tenth Street, The Leaf-Chronicle reported in August 1933 that “it is one of the very few schools in the South that has been given an ‘A’ rating.” Roberts also made her mark as the organizer and first president of the Burt High School Parent Teacher Association where she was instrumental in sponsoring the first Negro History Week observances at the school. The Crocus Art and Study Club followed suit and sponsored Negro History Week in the public schools. As part of a club-sponsored February 1930 observance at Burt High School, Roberts spoke on “Woman’s Role in Negro Progress” while another discussed “Facts and Principles of Negro Progress,” and a third covered Black contributions to science and inventions.
Roberts served as president of the Clarksville City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, an organization that included the Crocus Art and Study Club, the Ladies Industrial Club, Eureka Club, The Triangle Society and The DeLuxe Club. She was the local Federation president at the time the Clarksville chapter hosted the State meeting in June 1939, and later served as parliamentarian of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs.
After her marriage and move to Clarksville, Roberts became an active member of Fifth Ward Baptist Church, serving as president of the Crescent Circle, a group that in 1954 sponsored the visit of renowned speaker and Baptist minister U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell. She was also treasurer of the Baptist Training Union.
Roberts had a drive for public service throughout her life in Clarksville and was a leader in civic, educational and religious activities. Her involvement in the community as the organizer and leader of numerous organizations paved the way not only for women, but women of color. Roberts’ contributions to the Clarksville Community have left a lasting positive impact for generations of women and African-American’s that can still be seen to this day.
Ella Ree Asbrook Roberts died in Clarksville at age 83 on Sept. 11, 1963 and was laid to rest in Clarksville’s Golden Hills Cemetery. As her funeral program noted: “In character, in industry and in cultural and intellectual interests, she was an exemplary Christian, citizen, wife and mother.” She led a truly meaningful and impactful life that contributed to the betterment of the broader Clarksville community. For that, we recognize her as one of our final “Clarksville Faces of Women’s History.”
Special thanks to Sylvia Stanfield, granddaughter of Ella Roberts, for granting permission to draw from her research and writing for this feature.