There is little doubt that Homer B. Roberts was truly an extraordinary man with a multitude of talents, both in business and in the military. Born in 1885 in a small rural community outside of Springfield, Missouri, he was well educated, receiving a degree from Kansas State Agricultural College. It is known that he also spent time at the Tuskegee Institute. In the early 1900's, it is recorded that he worked in the retail car business, but no other specifics were located.
With the start of World War II, Roberts enlisted (1917), believing it 'was an honor for individuals of the Negro race to fight for and protect the country." He served in France in some of the heaviest battles (Argonne) and was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Signal Corp., the first of his race to receive such a rank.
When he returned to Kansas City in 1919, Roberts began brokering new cars within the black community. The white dealers provided him the opportunity, believing that "blacks could best sell to blacks" and sales would be incremental.
Roberts understood the power of advertising and began purchasing ads in The Kansas City Sun, the local and then prominent African-American newspaper. His advertisements were 'cutting edge' efforts for the times and his business grew. In 1921, he acquired new sales offices and hired two salespersons to meet the growing demands of his business.
Roberts made history in 1923. Believing he needed larger facilities to service his businesses, he had constructed a 9,500 square foot building which he called the Roberts Company Motor Mart. This facility not only serviced his car operation, but provided additional retail space for black-owned businesses – one of the first retail shopping centers in the country.
With his success, many small, niche manufacturers entered into sales agreements with Roberts. Such auto companies were Hupmobile, Rickenbacker, Whippet, and Marmon. He also had a distributorship arrangement with a local Oldsmobile dealer. He advertised heavily in The Kansas City Call, the then dominant African-American newspaper in Kansas City. He remained in business at this location until 1929.
There are no findings as to why Roberts decided to move to Chicago in 1929 with two local business associates (Kenneth E. Caldwell, Jr. and Thomas J. "Big Piney" Brown, both African-Americans), where they opened the Roberts-Campbell Motors Company, which featured Hupmobile. Brown managed the Kansas City operation for a short period but subsequently it was sold and soon after closed.
It is believed that the Chicago operation remained in business only for a short period. With the closing, Roberts sought and obtained sales work from local white dealers who were aggressively seeking out black consumers.
In 1941, at the age of 56, Roberts re-joined the military and spent four years in the Army during World War II. He was discharged with honors and returned to Chicago where he worked in media/public relations until his death in 1952.
This brief summary does not do justice to the extraordinary business talents of Roberts, but it can be well documented that he was one of the first African-American retailing giants. For those interested in learning more about Homer B. Roberts, a book detailing his business life can be purchased from: