People & Events: Willie Roberson, 1915 - ?
"I just got to say I think I am doing well to keep the mind I got now. These people make wise cracks talking about somebody in Alabama to defend us, say I would get out better. They won't let the New York people come around."
-- to a visitor to jail, 1937
Willie Roberson was born on the Fourth of July, 1915, in Columbus, Georgia. His father walked out a month after his birth and his mother died when he was two. Willie was raised by his grandmother until her death in 1930. Although he made it through to seventh grade in Atlanta, a doctor later measured Roberson's IQ to be about 64, and his mental age at nine. He could not read or write and had difficulty speaking, and was the butt of many courtroom spectators' jokes.
Roberson had boarded the Southern Railroad headed to Memphis in search of free medical care for his syphilis and gonorrhea. He was in pain and lying in a car near the back of the train when he was arrested along with the 8 other African American teenagers accused of rape. The cane he used to walk with was thrown away on orders of the deputy that took him into custody.
This painful, syphilitic condition was evidence to defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz that Roberson could not have committed this crime. Judge James Horton agreed that it was unlikely that Roberson could have jumped from car to car as Victoria Price claimed. However, when it was revealed that Ruby Bates had been treated for syphilis herself, Roberson's venereal disease was cited as evidence of his guilt. Horribly, he was not treated for his condition until 1933.
Roberson was one of the defendants released in July of 1937, after six years without a retrial. Upon his release, Roberson said he wanted to become an airplane mechanic. After a brief foray into show business, Roberson settled into steady work in New York City. He was continually plagued by ill health, and suffered asthma attacks and bad luck. One night in Harlem, Roberson was in a bar when a fight broke out. Although not involved in the fight, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Of that incident he wrote, "I am again a victim of almost inconcievable maglinity and though I hartily dislike the role of myrter I have been cast in that role and it seems impossible to escape it."
Roberson's asthma had been greatly aggravated by his time in jail and he eventually died of an asthma attack.