Needham Roberts

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Needham Roberts
Needham Roberts (US Army soldier).png
Roberts as depicted in the May 1919 edition of The Crisis
BornApril 28, 1901
Trenton, New Jersey
DiedApril 18, 1949(1949-04-18) (aged 47)
Newark, New Jersey
Fairmount Cemetery, Newark, New Jersey
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1917-1919
Unit New York Army National Guard
Purple Heart ribbon.svg Purple Heart
Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 ribbon.svg Croix de guerre

Needham Roberts (April 28, 1901 – April 18, 1949) was an American soldier in the Harlem Hellfighters and recipient of the Purple Heart and the Croix de Guerre for his valor during World War I.

Early life[edit]

Roberts was the son of Emma Roberts and the Reverend Norman Roberts, who had moved to New Jersey from North Carolina in 1890. Roberts was born in Trenton, New Jersey and raised on Trenton's Wilson Street.[1] He sometimes spelled his first name as "Neadom", which is how it appears on his grave marker. Roberts graduated from Lincoln Elementary School and attended high school, but dropped out before graduating so he could begin working, first as a hotel bellhop, and later as a clerk in a drugstore. At the start of US involvement in World War I in 1917, the seventeen-year-old Roberts lied about his age so he could enlist in the United States Army, falsely claiming to be eighteen. He was assigned to the 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit of the 92nd Division.

World War I[edit]

While on guard duty on May 14, 1918, Roberts and private William Henry Johnson fought off a 24-man German patrol, though both were severely wounded. Both were awarded the Croix de Guerre for their actions. They also received the Purple Heart in 1932; for Johnson, this was a posthumous award.[2] In 2002, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; in 2015 Johnson's award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.[3]


Roberts was disabled by his wounds, and unable to maintain steady employment. He occasionally gave paid lectures about his wartime experiences, and in the early 1940s gave radio addresses and other speeches as part of the Army's effort to recruit African-Americans for World War II.

Death and burial[edit]

Roberts died in Newark, New Jersey on April 18, 1949, and was buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Newark.[4] According to news accounts, Roberts and his wife Iola jointly decided to commit suicide, and hanged themselves in the basement of their home.[5] Newspaper accounts also indicated that they may have been motivated by the fact that he had been accused of molesting a child the day before.[6] In fact, Roberts had previously been arrested on a similar charge, which led to his first wife divorcing him.[7] Roberts had also been arrested in the 1920s for wearing his Army uniform after the post-war demobilization,[8] something which had also happened to Johnson.[9] As a result of this record, some authors believe it possible that the criminal charges against Roberts and arrests were motivated by racism, rather than actual misconduct.


  1. ^ "Celebrating Trenton's Historical Figures: Needham Roberts". Retrieved 2020-06-03.
  2. ^ Martin, James B. (2014). African American War Heroes. ABC-CLIO. pp. 135–136. ISBN 9781610693660.
  3. ^ Lamothe, Dan (1 June 2015). "It took 97 years to get these soldiers the Medal of Honor. Here's how it happened". The Washington Post. The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  4. ^ Needham Roberts at Find a Grave
  5. ^ McGhee, J.; Webber, H. B. (April 30, 1949). "New Facts brought to Light in Roberts Double Suicide". New York Age. New York, NY. p. 11.
  6. ^ Webber, Harry B. (April 30, 1949). "Jersey Journal". New York Age. New York, NY. p. 11.
  7. ^ "Jersey Journal".
  8. ^ Nelson, Peter N. (2009). A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters' Struggle for Freedom in WW I and Equality at Home. New York, NY: Civitas Books. p. 341. ISBN 978-0-465-00317-4.
  9. ^ Hill, Robert A. (1983). The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. I. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 293. ISBN 978-0-520-04456-2.

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