Dr. Frances Roberts made big impact as early Huntsville preservationist

single-meta-cal May 6, 2022

Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Historic Huntsville Foundation Executive Director Donna Castellano.

If you’ve walked the streets of the Twickenham, Old Town or Five Points historic districts and reveled in the beauty, history and architecture of those neighborhoods, you have experienced the life’s work of Dr. Frances Roberts.

If you’ve toured and enjoyed Constitution Hall Village, the Weeden House Museum or Burritt on the Mountain, you have experienced Roberts’ life’s work.

If you are a graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and recognize the value of the education you received at one of our nation’s premier research universities, you have experienced Roberts’ life’s work.

Roberts’ legacy as an educator and historic preservation advocate is what led the Historic Huntsville Foundation, City of Huntsville and Huntsville-Madison County Bicentennial Committee to honor her with a historic marker at 603 Randolph Ave. The marker was unveiled in early May, which is also Historic Preservation Month.

A love of teaching and history

Roberts began her career as a teacher and never deviated from her commitment to education. After graduating from Livingston State Teachers College (now the University of West Alabama), and a short teaching stint in Sumter County, she moved to Huntsville and began teaching at Huntsville City Schools. Roberts, who earned her master’s degree in history from the University of Alabama, taught high school history for 12 years.

A portrait of Dr. Frances Roberts. She's an older lady and wearing glasses.

Dr. Frances Roberts was a tireless advocate of preservation in Huntsville.

Roberts’ love of history and professional development sparked her return to academia and the pursuit of her Ph.D. In 1956, she became the first woman at the University of Alabama to receive a doctorate in history. Her dissertation, “Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County,” remains a seminal work on the settlement patterns of Madison County and Alabama’s early statehood history.

As an educator, she continually broke new ground for women. Roberts was the University of Alabama Extension Center’s first full-time faculty member. When the Extension Center became UAH, she established the History Department, serving as its first full-time professor and chair, a position she held until 1970.

From scholar to preservationist

In her community classroom. Dr. Roberts with Dorothy Adair (far left), Lynn Jones, Historic Huntsville Foundation, and preservation architect Harvie Jones at her Randolph Street home.

Roberts and Dorothy Adair, far left, join Lynn Jones of the Historic Huntsville Foundation and preservation architect Harvie Jones at Roberts’ Randolph Street home.

As Huntsville raced toward the space age, Roberts worked tirelessly to ensure growth did not come at the expense of the City’s historic buildings and neighborhoods. As demolition crews took down one historic building after another, she took her prowess as an educator and historian to the hardest classroom of all – the public classroom – and advocated for the preservation of Huntsville’s history. She was joined by Harvie Jones, a noted architect who came to share her passion for historic preservation.

Roberts’ current and former students became her fiercest allies, founding organizations, chairing committees and marshalling the skills she taught them in service of the cause she loved. In recognition of her many contributions to our City and state, she was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014.

A priceless donation

The cover of a book by Dr. Frances Roberts

Roberts authored this publication, The Role of Madison County in Achieving Statehood for Alabama.

Despite her accomplishments, Roberts was not without eccentricities. According to neighborhood lore, she had a weakness for cats. Her house and yard were the favorite gathering spot for strays across the Twickenham and Old Town neighborhoods. She also was a bit of a pack rat, an occupational hazard for someone in a profession that views every scrap of paper as a future historic source.

Her collection of papers donated to UAH’s Special Collections and Archives is a treasure trove of information for anyone with an interest in Alabama history. Though measuring 114 linear feet, library staff scanned every page and made the collection available online.

In addition to her own research documents and family papers, Roberts kept books and pamphlets given to her by local historians. While recently perusing the collection, I came across “A History of Lakeside Methodist Church,” written by Marguerite Lacey, one of the few written histories about Huntsville’s Reconstruction-era Black community. I had heard the book existed but could never find it. But there it was – perfectly preserved and easily accessible in the Frances Roberts collection.

An expanding vision

Since Roberts’ death in 2000, the City of Huntsville and historic preservationists have continued the movement she helped launch. Huntsville listed the Dallas, Lincoln, Lowe and Merrimack Mill Villages to the National Register of Historic Places, and we added Maple Hill Cemetery in 2012.

Two of Huntsville’s space-age neighborhoods, Edmonton Heights and McThornmor Acres, are now on the National Register. And, while it’s been a long time coming, Huntsville is recognizing historic spaces associated with Huntsville’s Black community. Edmonton Heights is a 1950s neighborhood created for Huntsville’s Black residents during segregation. The Magnolia Terrace neighborhood, built in the 1950s for Black homeowners, will also be surveyed and include adjoining streets with houses built in the early 20th century.

The author remembers

I met Roberts twice as an undergraduate and graduate history student at UAH in the 1980s and 1990s. As an undergraduate student, I received a departmental scholarship and attended a luncheon where scholarship benefactors met with recipients. Roberts terrified me and intimidated everyone at our table, including then UAH President Dr. John Wright.

My second meeting with Roberts was as a graduate student in the seminar room of the History Department in Roberts Hall, the building that bears her name. By then, my curiosity in Alabama history had been awakened.

I stayed after class to catch up on reading when she came in the room, waiting for a colleague to finish a meeting. We talked about Alabama history, and she was warm, congenial and encouraging. We were both more comfortable in a classroom than a university luncheon.

Roberts was the best kind of scholar because her own standard of excellence inspired students to reach further.

Want to learn more about Alabama history? Click here to view the UAH Frances Cabaniss Roberts collection.