Robert Roberts moved comfortably among Boston’s Brahmin class, not as an equal but as an African-American servant.
He was good at his job, and in 1827 he published a manual on how to do it. The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families was the first book written by an African-American published by a commercial publishing house. The book, reprinted twice, was also a must-read etiquette manual for rich Americans who wanted people to think they had good taste.
In the House Servant’s Directory, Robert Roberts appeals to his reader to judge people on their character rather than on their skin color. He advised servants to obey their employer, but not because of the servant’s inferiority. Roberts believed submission would lead to financial independence.
A staunch abolitionist, he worked to end slavery and promote racial equality. His second son took his activism further, suing to integrate Boston’s public schools. That lawsuit would have tragic repercussions more than half a century later.
He was born around 1780 in South Carolina and somehow educated himself. He alludes to Shakespeare and the Bible in his book. Records don’t show his early status, whether slave or free.
He arrived in Boston from Charleston in 1805, perhaps with Nathan Appleton, for whom he worked as a manservant. Appleton, along with Patrick Tracy and Francis Lowell, established a textile manufacturing complex in a town renamed Lowell, Mass. Kirk Boott, for whom Roberts also worked, ran the Lowell mills successfully and made them all rich.
Roberts may have been alluding to his experiences with the famously irascible Boott when he said a servant would experience many trials of temper, ‘more perhaps than in any other station in which you might enter.’
But on the other hand, Roberts wrote, “this station of life comprises comforts, privileges and pleasures, which are to be found in but few other stations in which you may enter.”
One privilege he probably enjoyed: traveling with Appleton to Europe in 1810. He mentioned in his book that he served the finest families in England and France.
Robert Roberts later worked for Christopher Gore, a wealthy U.S. senator and governor of Massachusetts from 1825-27. He managed Gore’s splendid country estate in Waltham. There he served large dinners that included such dignitaries as President James Monroe. Gore may even have paid for the publication of The House Servant’s Directory.
Today, Gore Place is a house museum where Robert Roberts’ lemonade is served on special occasions.
The job Robert Roberts described amounted to managing an entire household as head butler or steward. He advised the servant to display deference to the employer but to conduct himself with dignity and skill. He advised employers to only hire servants over 30 years old.
Throughout the day, the servant had to help his employer get dressed and keep his clothes in order, make and present drinks, supervise contractors, serve meals, supervise servants, light the fire, maintain the wine cellar and shop for food.
One of the servant’s most important duties was serving meals in a style befitting an aristocratic Bostonian. Historian Graham Russell Hodges notes the House Servant’s Directory served as ‘a precise manual of proper dining room conduct for an aspiring American elite.’
The book gives detailed instructions on serving dinner. Don’t bring the cheese out too early, because it might smell. Make as little noise as possible when changing plates. Make sure the side dishes line up straight on the table. Take a station a yard behind the person at the foot of the table and a little to the left. Never let your thumb be farther than the rim of the plate. Take off dish covers with your left hand. Have half as many candles as guests, with a flame should be 18 inches above the table.
Heating the house occupied a great deal of time in winter, and Roberts devotes 14 pages to making a fire of Lehigh coal, also known as anthracite or Rhode Island coal.
The House Servant’s Directory also includes many recipes, for polishes, cleaners, spot removers, jams, sauces, drinks and adhesives.
The Eel Cure
One of a house servant’s duties, wrote Roberts, might be to sober up his employer with hot coffee or a cup of vinegar. He might even have to reform his employer’s excessive drinking – something Roberts said he did once successfully. He advises:
Put, in a sufficient quantity of rum, brandy, gin, or whatever liquor the person is in the habit of drinking, three large live eels, which leave until quite dead, give this liquor unawares to those you wish to reform, and they will get so disgusted against it, that, though they formerly like it, they will now have quite an aversion to it afterwards; this I have seen tried and have the good effect on the person who drank it.
Throughout the day, the servant had to present himself as articulate, well-mannered, efficient, reliable and clean. Roberts even gave tips on personal hygiene. For example, one should wash one’s feet three times a week in water and rum.
The book went into three editions over the next 20 years. Anyone considering hiring a servant or working as one had to read it. Museums that display Federal period rooms and place settings still use Roberts’ directory as a reference.
Outside the Day Job
Robert Roberts left a legacy that went well beyond etiquette for the wealthy.
He settled among Beacon Hill’s African-American community and worked to end slavery. He got close to prominent African-Americans, including Paul Cuffe, a wealthy sea captain, and James Easton, an outspoken abolitionist and blacksmith.
Soon after he arrived in Boston, he married Dorothy Hall. Her father, Jude Hall, had won his freedom fighting in the American Revolution. The Hall family suffered an agonizing blow when kidnappers sold her three brothers into slavery in the South.
Dorothy died of tuberculosis in 1813. Later that year Robert Roberts married Sarah Easton, James Easton’s daughter. They had 12 children.
After Christopher Gore died in 1827, Robert Roberts left service. He worked as a stevedore, or ship unloader, in Boston, where he owned his own house. A member of the First Independent (African) Baptist Church on Beacon Hill, he campaigned against the Back to Africa movement.
In 1831, Robert Roberts attended the first annual National Convention of Free People of Color in Philadelphia, a meeting that responded to violent racism. He also collected money for a manual labor college for young black men in New Haven, an effort that ultimately failed.
Late in life he exhibited signs of dementia. In 1852, his children asked the court to appoint them guardian of his finances. They lost their case. Robert Roberts died at the age of 83 in December 1860.
He left an estate worth over $7,000 at a time when few African-Americans had estates over a thousand dollars.
Benjamin Franklin Roberts
Robert Roberts’ second son, Benjamin Franklin Roberts, took up his namesake’s trade: printing. He started an abolitionist newspaper in the United States, the Anti-Slavery Herald. It didn’t last long.
In 1848, his five-year-old daughter Sarah attended the segregated Abiel Smith School. She had to walk a long way past a whites-only school, and received an inferior education. Benjamin Franklin Roberts sued the Boston School Committee to let Sarah enroll in a school for white children.
A young black attorney, Robert Morris, argued the case along with co-counsel Charles Sumner, the famous anti-slavery politician.
Sumner argued that separate schools could never be equal, and that Sarah suffered psychological harm by attending an inferior, segregated school.
In the end they lost the case. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Lemuel Shaw, ruled that prejudice could not be wiped away but law. He established the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine upheld in 1896 in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which justified Jim Crow laws.
Sumner, however, helped persuade the Massachusetts Legislature to ban segregated schools in 1855 – the only statewide desegregation law passed in the 19th century.
To read some excerpts from A House Servant’s Directory, click here.
Images: Gore Place By Daderot at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18003287. This story was updated in 2023.