Nobody knows who Frederick M. Roberts is these days, at least not at Fred Roberts Park at 48th and Honduras streets in South Los Angeles. I'd never heard of him, so I drove down on a pleasant Sunday afternoon to explore and found two soccer teams scrambling over the ball on a field that was more dirt that grass.
The park is on a long, thin strip of land next to Long Beach Avenue that was used for public housing in World War II. A gritty neighborhood of early 20th century homes is to the west and to the east, beyond the Blue Line tracks and Long Beach Avenue, are nothing but warehouses.
A few ice cream trucks circled the park, their tinkling jingles merging into something that Charles Ives would have adored. There were a few gunshots down on Long Beach Avenue, but they sounded like .22s. No heavy artillery, anyway.
In the north end of the park, a group of men were having a pickup game of basketball while children played on the swings and slides at the middle of the grounds. A big eucalyptus tree marked the edge of the soccer field, which had been chalked onto the dirt.
As I watched the Latino players scramble against one another, a young African American man with a diamond earring, wearing a football jersey with USC colors, came up to me and began talking. He took out his wallet, which was empty except for his temporary ID from the DMV: Jonathan Noel Davis of the 1400 block of East 48th Street.
He wanted to know if that was his government name. I said it sure looked that way. He said he liked being called Noel rather than Jonathan. "Like Christmas?" I said.
"Is Noel Jesus' middle name?" he asked. I replied: "I don't think so."
Noel, who was born in 1986, said he wanted to be known for doing something good. He said he had recently gotten out of jail after serving seven months for pulling "a dumb robbery." When I asked whether he was going to school, Noel said he'd dropped out of Fremont High School in his senior year. He said maybe he'd try to get into a trade school.
I said education would help. I asked "Do you go to church?" Noel said he went, but "not today." I told him that church could help him live the right kind of life. What was the name of his church? He didn't know. I tried to encourage him and told him he had his whole life ahead of him. "Everybody says that," he replied.
Did he know who Fred Roberts was?
I told him I didn't either until I looked it up.
In 1957, the city of Los Angeles dedicated a park in honor of Frederick M. Roberts, who in 1918 became the first African American elected to the California Legislature. Roberts, a Republican who served 16 years in the Assembly, was killed in 1952 while backing out of his driveway. According to the Oakland Library website, he was a descendant of Sally Hemings.
"So this is a black park?" Noel asked.
"It's named for a black man," I said.
At one point, Noel said he wished he had a girlfriend. I told him to get an education and a job and then worry about a girlfriend.
I told Noel the next time he went to church that he might get a Bible and start reading it. He said he had one. "Start reading it," I said. "Start with something easy, like Proverbs. They're short little sayings that will tell you how to live your life."
The next thing I knew he was headed off home.
Here's some information on the Oakland Public Library's Frederick Madison Roberts collection.