Roberts, Duane L.
Civil Rights and Education Champion
Duane L. Roberts was a native son of Kalamazoo, and one of its most important voices for community change for more than three decades. At the time of his death in 1989, then-Mayor Edward Annen said of him, “Duane Roberts dedicated his life to helping people understand each other, work together, and to eliminating discrimination from our society.” A key figure in Kalamazoo’s post-WWII reckoning with its social and personal expressions of prejudice, its varying forms of bias and discrimination and its deep divisions and disparities based along racial lines, Roberts was in the middle of it all, a “giant among people” whose “vision for a better Kalamazoo touched many lives and hearts.” (KG, 19 October 1989) At his memorial service, the Reverend Davidson Loehr of the People’s Church suggested that Roberts had written his own epitaph just weeks before suffering a fatal heart attack. As part of an adult religious education class, Roberts had written down ‘He Loved’.
A scion of one of the county’s pioneering families, Roberts was born at Borgess Hospital in 1917 to Ira and Vera Roberts. His great-great-grandparents on his father’s side of the family were the first Black family to settle in the area, Enoch and Deborah Harris. Roberts’ early life and experiences with prejudice was discussed during his interview with Dr. C. Allen Alexander in 1986, where he detailed being called racist names by the parents of children he played with. He attended Lincoln Elementary School in 1921, and later graduated in 1937 from Kalamazoo Central High School.
Military Service and College
Roberts enlisted for military service in September of 1942. He served in the “Black 99th”, a decorated, all-Black squadron of the Army Air Force. Despite the racism he faced at home, Roberts returned from battle with a “raised self-esteem”. “During the war, you begin to make a contribution, you begin to feel you’re just as good as anyone else.” (KG 3 June 1983) His time in the air force later provided him with access to G.I. Bill funds, which he used while at WMU, earning his bachelor’s degree in social work. The funds ran out while he was taking graduate courses at Wayne State University. Despite not finishing his studies at WSU, Roberts saw in the profession of social work, a calling to help others that would guide his personal and professional life from that point on. In 1951, Roberts became a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service, retiring in 1986.
“A lot of people have said to me, With your education, why didn’t aspire higher?” he says, then explains, “In addition to helping people, working as a civil servant provided a degree of security that other professionals may not have afforded if they took up unpopular causes. It’s also work that gave me time to serve on various committees and projects.” (KG, 1 February 1987)
Civil Rights and Education
Roberts first became involved in the NAACP when he returned from the war in the mid-1940’s, later leading the local branch as president several times. In addition to his long association with the NAACP, Roberts worked with the Housing Commission, Council of Human Relations, The American Civil Liberties Union, and Planned Parenthood.
In 1963, as the civil rights movement gained momentum throughout the country, Roberts and others became involved in a local dispute between the owners of the Van Avery Drugstore and several Black student activists, who were attempting to press the owners to hire a Black employee. Roberts participated in the picketing of the store, as well as the negotiations that took place between various stakeholders and community leaders.
Later in life, Roberts pushed for the establishment of a city park honoring the life and vision of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1987, the park opened.
A Lasting Legacy
Roberts’ legacy will be most associated with his efforts to desegregate the school system in the late 1960’s. It was Roberts who first approached the Chicago office of the NAACP, and then the New York office, to ask what their position would be if the school board delayed or rescinded the desegregation plan. Encouraged to file suit against the board, Roberts filed to be one of the plaintiffs in the case of Oliver vs. Kalamazoo Board of Education. Roberts played a pivotal role in helping the school system transition during these stormy years after the school board lost their case, appearing at school board meetings on a regular basis to engage in constructive conversations. Shortly before his death, Roberts was elected to the Kalamazoo Board of Education, and despite not having any children of his own. Roberts regarded public education as a vital, civil rights landscape in which to shape toward addressing educational outcomes and racial disparities.
“If there’s something I’d like to be remembered for, it’s Oliver vs. Board of Education and its effect on equal education opportunity in Kalamazoo and school desegregation in the North. When you’re doing something like that, you don’t think about rewards, but just that this is a job that has to be done.” (KG, 17 April 1980)
1980: Western Michigan University bestowed an honorary degree of Doctor of Community Service
1983: The metropolitan Kalamazoo branch of the NAACP awarded Roberts their annual Humanitarian Award
1990: Roberts posthumously received the Irving S. Gilmore Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, part of the STAR Awards sponsored by the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Voluntary Action Center
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, September 2022
“He Made a Difference”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 April 1980, page A1, column 1
“Most Meaningful Award Yet for Civil-Rights Soldier”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 June 1983, page A1, column 4
“Roberts’ Struggle Isn’t Over Yet”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 February 1987, page C1, column 3
“Duane Roberts Dead at 71”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 October 1989, page A1, column 1
“400 Gather to Commemorate Life of Rights Leader”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 October 1989, page B1, column 1
“Irving S. Gilmore Achievement Award”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 April 1990, page C1, column 1
Social Changes in Western Michigan, 1930 to 1990, Henry Vance Davis (editor), (H 921 A3754.3)
Local History Room Files
Name File: Roberts, Duane L.