Frederick Madison Roberts was born in Chillicothe, Ohio. He arrived in Los Angeles at age six and was the first black to graduate from Los Angeles High School. He attended the University of Southern California, majored in pre-law and graduated from Colorado College, and finished the Barnes-Worsham School of Embalming and Mortuary Science. Roberts eventually took over his father’s undertaking business. By 1908 he was editor of the Colorado Springs Light, a weekly newspaper, and two years later was deputy assessor for El Paso County, Colorado. Roberts spent several years as principal of the all-black Mound Bayou Normal and Industrial Institute in Mississippi. Returning to Los Angeles, in 1912 he bought the New Age and served as its editor until 1948.
Running in 1918 as a Republican to represent California’s 62nd Assembly District, he defeated a candidate who handed out cards reading “My opponent is a nigger,” and thus became the first black in the state and on the West Coast to ascend to such high political office. During Roberts’s 16 years in the State Assembly he sponsored legislation to establish the University of California at Los Angeles, expand the use of school textbooks, and he proposed civil rights and anti-lynching measures. In June 1922 he welcomed Marcus Garvey to the city and rode in Garvey’s parade car. Following his defeat in 1934 by fellow African American Augustus F. Hawkins, a Democrat, Roberts failed in two attempts to become the first black elected to Congress from California.