Brick by brick
Seventy-three years later, he unfolds his life like his deep creased blueprints and isolates that single moment as the one that carved his course.
It was that tiny woman’s conviction that freed the boy from the cotton field and spurred him toward the man who would become Waynesboro’s first black contractor. Those six words played in his ear again and again as he built the black community, one house at a time.
"To understand, you have to see the backdrop of the world I was born into,” Roberson explains as he draws back the curtain on his Burke County boyhood. He was the baby in a home spilling over with nine siblings and never quite enough to make ends meet. The last seven were boys, and he swung at the tail by a five-year gap.
“My father John Henry was unskilled and uneducated,” Roberson says matter of factly as he squares off shoulders still thick from hard work. “My mother taught him to read and write when they got married.”
John Henry Roberson was a sharecropper by trade and often negotiated for cheaper, less desirable lands. Mostly that meant clear cuts still punctured by the trunks of great trees. The painstaking transformation to planting season rode squarely on the backs of John Henry and his seven boys.
“He worked the living daylights out of his sons,” Roberson says, touching his fingertips together as if remembering the heft of the ax. Their household rose and fell with the rhythms of those crops. The hoeing and picking pulled the six older boys from their school desks and into the fields until the last fluff of white was scrapped. Just as they began to catch up with their classmates, the turned soil and seed beckoned them back in the spring.
But Roberson’s mother Jennie wouldn’t have that for her last child.
“My mother insisted that I be allowed to go to school, and the idea was supported by all my brothers” Roberson explains. “My mother stood firm. So I would go to school all day and then come home and hoe cotton.” Ten years later Roberson graduated valedictorian of his class at Waynesboro High and Industrial School and went off to Georgia State College at the urging of principal Robert E. Blakeney. But by the end of the first day, Roberson knew he would not be staying.
“They were doing math we had mastered in the seventh grade,” he says. “It was a perfect waste of my time.”
So 16-year-old Roberson boomeranged back home where his big brother Marion got him a job as a carpenter’s helper.
“Everything was done by hand. There were no power saws but there were always a lot of jacklegs to cut wood,” Roberson says, recalling how black families found a carpenter to frame their houses then hired out the other jobs.
The materials were substandard but there were few options. The problem, he says, was twofold.
“The sheer cost of brick made it much more practical for blacks to simply build a wood house,” Roberson explains. “But even if they’d had the money it would have been difficult to find a black carpenter who knew how to frame a house and get it ready for brick. There were brick veneer houses but those were only for the few elite.”
Concrete block houses began to take on steam, too, but Roberson wanted better.
“Those houses were stronger than wood but the block’s pores absorbed moisture ... it wasn’t the top of the line. It wasn’t like brick.” While
Roberson married and began growing his large family, he and Marion were growing into skilled craftsmen. The brothers worked side by side for more than a year and soon became their boss’s biggest competitors.
Roberson discovered a knack for drawing plans and negotiating with customers, a skill that was lacking for many of the older tradesmen.
“People didn’t have the luxury of grand schemes and blueprints,” he says. “Sometimes I’d draw houses on brown paper bags but the dimensions were as good as on modern blueprints.”
Just after he turned 19 Roberson landed the job that would make his name.
The offer came from Frank King, a gardener who wanted Roberson to build him a house on East Eighth Street, and build it from top to bottom. He didn’t want a wood house and he didn’t want concrete blocks.
“It was the first brick house built for blacks in Waynesboro,” Roberson says, recalling the thrill of the earthen red pallets and the satisfaction of laying each brick into something larger.
“It felt wonderful, I’ll tell you that.”
He walked away with $10,286.09 and a name that stuck like mortar to the words “brick house.” Unfortunately
“ the economy had a chokehold on the area,” Roberson explains, noting he was lucky to build two houses a year. “But when the soldiers began coming back from World War II that really turned things around. Most of the black veterans wanted to build homes. And they wanted brick.”
That demand cemented Roberson’s role as a full contractor, and he soon brought all six brothers into the business to cover everything from plumbing to wiring. But even in good times, the building business was a balancing act.
“It’s easy to lose money if you’re not careful with the pencil. If you’re going to build a house, you almost have to know how many nails are going into it,” Roberson laughs, playfully recounting homes that cost him more than his profit. “Your profit is only a sliver of the cost, and if someone comes along and steals a door they are also stealing a hunk of your profit.” As the business was fine tuned, Roberson Brothers homes began speckling the community and stretching past the Richmond County line.
When the youngest brother closed the door on each finished house he felt like he was opening a window to a better life for that family.
“It was almost like the birth of a child,” Roberson says. “To see a family’s face light up when they walk into their new house …it’s beyond words.”
But black history experts like Mike Searles believe the effect ran much deeper for Burke County’s black population as a whole. With each house came a larger sense of community and pride.
“It was the lack of dignity that most blacks experienced in the ‘white world’ that prompted them to create their own … in their own churches, fraternal organizations, schools and neighborhoods, they could receive the honor, dignity and pride that alluded them in general society,” he explains. “Pride was reflected in having a nice house, a nice car, an education, a middle class family and respectability.” The brothers scattered with the years but Roberson remained in Waynesboro, dreaming up plans and building them with brick and mortar. His tools have long been put away but his houses don’t budge. Some hold new families but each brick still reminds him that success isn’t a handout.
They also remind him of his mother Jennie. He can still see the slight-framed young seamstress bent over her sewing machine with the pedal pumping like a heartbeat. She holds up a dress to examine the stitching, and even as a boy he recognizes the mixture of artistry and effort. He sees his mother go back to the machine … the same one he’ll pedal for her when she grows old and arthritic.
“She told me I owed the world a man,” Roberson says with a curt nod.