Roberta Saunders Mays
Civil Rights

Roberta was born in Bluefield, Virginia, to John Henry and Susie Palmer Saunders. She was one of ten children. Her father worked for Norfolk and Western Railroad Company as a blacksmith, and repairing diesel engines and wheels. As for her childhood, Roberta says "We were brought up very strict" in a family of "very religious people." Because Mr. Saunders worked for the railroad he received traveling passes for the family. She recalls seeing the White House at an early age. Her mother kept a garden for tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and other vegetables. Roberta attended a local school in an Odd Fellows Hall, and graduated from an African-American high school in 1939, she believes. Racial relations she recalls as less unsettled than other places in the South. "We were up in the mountains and there wasn't nothing but everybody around us poor, white and black," she recalls. Bluefield spread along the state line, bordering Bluefield, West Virginia. Roberta recalls having to ride in the back of the street car on the Virginia side, but could sit anywhere once the trolley reached West Virginia. "The people up in there lived so closely that nobody enforced the law," she recalls. Roberta moved to Richmond to attend beauty school. She married Emmett Mays, Jr., in August of 1943, when he was stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia. They would have three children and one grandchild. She came to Shreveport in 1945, where Mr. Mays worked at a trade school and became assistant principal at J.S. Clark School. Here she discovered race relations were somewhat different. "You were just black, way it is down here," she recalls. In addition to separate water fountains for black and white, she remembers blacks were not supposed to get off the front of a bus. Mrs. Mays worked for Caddo Community Action Agency and with Job Corps, retiring in 1979.