By Erick Johnson
The interview was supposed to be at Daley’s in Woodlawn. Those plans were scrapped once Herman Roberts whipped up a mean pot of chicken, okra and shrimp soup. With the aroma of spices and seafood wafting through the small house on Vernon Avenue, Roberts was cooking and so were his spirits.
Since the last time I saw him almost a year ago, Roberts had lost 50 pounds. He lost most of it while spending three months in the hospital for various surgeries. Physically, it was a difficult period for the 93-year-old, considered by many as one of the last great Black business tycoons on the South Side. Now after weathering some challenging storms, Roberts looks good. He no longer needs a cane or a walker to get around. His short trips to the kitchen are swift as he walks to check on his culinary creation. His past is mostly in black and white, but in the present, he still has a lot of color.
Roberts’ health is good news to an army of adult children who watch over him around the clock. There is also some exciting news around the house that everyone is hiding from their dad. After decades of running a string of motels and nightclubs where he mingled with some of the biggest names in entertainment, Roberts will get from 65th – 67th Street on S. King Drive named after him. He will be one of three Chicago trailblazers to receive such an honor during a festive ceremony that is scheduled for Friday, October 7.
The other honorees are Balm L. Leavell and Joseph H. Jefferson, the late founders of the Chicago Crusader newspaper. The achievement comes one year after the Crusader celebrated its 75th Anniversary.
Leavell and Jefferson died in 1968 and 1984 respectively, but Roberts is among a growing number of prominent Blacks who live to see their name etched on a brown, rectangular 16 inch sign. In a symbolic tribute, it will forever hang below the official street sign that bears the name of America’s most famous civil right rights leader. In 1968, then Mayor Richard J. Daley renamed South Parkway Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, the same year the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis, TN.
It’s an honor Roberts will live to experience as Alderman Willie Cochran (20th Ward) and numerous dignitaries will see the street designation Herman Roberts Way. It’s a fitting name to a man who lived life his way as he built an empire during segregation and the Jim Crow era. In addition to the
Crusader’s founders, Roberts joins comedian Bernie Mac, singers Chaka Khan and Sam Cooke and Ebony and Jet magazine founder John H. Johnson and scores of prominent Blacks who were bestowed honorary street names for their contributions to Chicago and Black America.
With less than a week before the big day, Roberts doesn’t know about the honor. His children are keeping it a secret, so this Crusader reporter also had to remain tight-lipped about the affair during a two hour interview in his Woodlawn home. It’s a house Roberts built for his mother in 1965. When she died in 1975, he moved in. He’s been there ever since.
Inside, the walls of the living room and kitchen are smothered with stunning black and white pictures of Roberts in a bygone era in Woodlawn. Though time and age has taken its toll on Roberts, the fire and unapologetic personality is still there. With a memory still vibrant, Roberts vividly speaks of the 1950s as if it happened weeks ago. When he talks about his encounters with Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, former President Jimmy Carter and many Black celebrities, his voice and spirits gain strength and passion. He hadn’t touched his soup yet, but the conversation seemed to be just as nourishing. To Roberts, Woodlawn’s history was just as delicious. He ate it up.
“Black nightclubs were the place to be,” he said. “Blacks in Woodlawn couldn’t go to certain places so they socialized with their own kind.”
He was born the son of a sharecropper in 1924 in Beggs, Oklahoma. It’s a small town whose population grew to five thousand when oil production peaked two years after Roberts’ birth. When he was just 10 years old, Roberts moved to Chicago as the Great Migration movement cooled from the Great Depression.
After selling Black newspapers on the city’s streets, in 1939 Herman’s brother Colvin introduced him to a friend who owned several taxi cabs and offered him a job washing the cars for little money. As a hard worker, Roberts built enough trust with the cab owners that he was allowed to drive cars without getting in trouble. By the time he was 18, Roberts had saved up enough money to purchase his own taxi and license. One taxi cab became two, two became three, and three became a fleet of 40 taxi cabs. By 1944 the fleet would be known as the Roberts Cab Company. It operated out of a garage on 67 Street and King Drive, a site that would be the future location of his iconic Roberts Show Lounge and the current New Beginnings Church, headed by Reverend Corey Brooks.
The taxi business would drive Roberts to greater success. After driving many passengers to nightclubs and lounges, Roberts realized the potential of having a dazzling club where Blacks on the South Side could relax and be entertained. In 1953, the Lucky Spot was born. It was a small lounge at 602 East 71st street. In 1954, he opened the Roberts Show Club, a venue that drew famous Black entertainers such as Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn and Sammie Davis Jr. The club also helped launched the careers of Redd Foxx, Della Reese, George Kirby, and Dick Gregory.
In addition to a thriving cab company and nightclub business, Roberts opened six motels on the South Side in 1960. One of them is now the Best Motel on 66th and King Drive. It was considered the classiest on the South Side. Roberts would also own bowling alleys, ice skating rinks and gas stations.
Ironically, Roberts’ business began to decline when then President Lyndon B. Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new act helped end segregation by prohibiting discrimination in many places where Blacks were once shut out. With their freedom, Black entertainers and residents went to other businesses in other neighborhoods as Roberts businesses declined.
“The Civil Acts of 1964 hurt me more than it helped,” Roberts said.
Roberts retired in 1992. Today, he’s now a historian who loves telling others the history about Woodlawn’s gilded age. While he remains excited about the neighborhood’s past, he bemoans Woodlawn’s present and future. Roberts believes more Blacks are losing touch with their past as shootings continue to rip through the neighborhood. Perhaps honoring trailblazers like Roberts is one step in the right direction.