Visitors to the second floor rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol are treated to a wealth of information about Illinois history. There stand the statues of great Illinois pioneers: Lincoln and Douglas, Gov. John Wood, Rep. Lottie Holman O’Neill, and Sen. Adelbert Roberts (R-Chicago), the state Senate’s first African-American member.Over the years, Roberts has been introduced to state capitol visitors as Illinois’ first African-American state legislator, but that honor belongs to Rep. John W.E. Thomas (R-Chicago) who was elected in 1876. In the years after Rep. Thomas was first elected, other African-Americans followed the trail he blazed to Springfield, including Rep. George Ecton (R-Chicago) in 1886, Rep. Edward Morris (R-Chicago) in 1890 and Rep. Alexander Lane (R-Chicago) who had already made history by becoming the first male African-American student admitted to Southern Illinois University (1876), before graduating from Rush Medical College (1895), becoming a prominent south side physician, being elected to the Illinois House in 1906.
When Adelbert Roberts followed these pioneers to the House in 1918, he was already a prominent attorney in Chicago. During his first term in the House, the famed 370th “Black Devils” regiment returned home to Illinois and was honored with a reception in Bloomington at which Rep. Roberts was the keynote speaker. Speaking in front of a packed assembly, Roberts did not pass up the chance to express the hope of many African-Americans that the valor and sacrifice which the regiment made for the nation might lead to equality at home.
That same year, Chicago exploded in horrific riots, which were only put down with the intervention of the National Guard. In the wake of the riots, Governor Frank Lowden appointed a Race Commission to study the riot, its causes and remedies to prevent such an outbreak of violence again in the future. The governor chose Rep. Roberts as one of the commissioners. The commission’s report, The Negro in Chicago was the first state government report to substantially highlight the need for an end to labor and housing discrimination in Chicago.In 1924, Adelbert Roberts became Illinois’ first African-American state senator, when he was appointed to an unexpired term. He made history again in 1926 when he was elected in his own right. His experience in the law and his skill as an orator helped him to become the first African-American to chair a Senate committee, when he took the gavel for the Criminal Procedures Committee in 1927. Re-elected in 1930, Sen. Roberts was part of the fight for legislation which outlawed discrimination on state public works building contracts.
Sen. Roberts did not run for re-election in 1934, and he passed away in January 1937 at the age of 69. Fifty years after his death, his statue was dedicated in the rotunda, next to the painting of George Washington.