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Alva Doris Roberts, 'first lady' of church where Emmett Till's funeral was held, dead at 101

Alva Doris Roberts with her daughter, Sharon Roberts (left), and granddaughter, Sharon Alva Hayes. | Provided photo

Alva Doris Roberts was first lady of the church where Mamie Till Mobley made good on her vow to “let the world see what I’ve seen.”

She refused to hide the mutilated body of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, after his barbaric slaying by racists in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

His open-casket wake and funeral were held in 1955 at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. It’s so well-known that it’s often just called “Fortieth,” for its location at 40th and State. Mrs. Roberts’ husband, Bishop Isaiah Leon Roberts, comforted Mamie Till Mobley when her son’s remains arrived from Mississippi at the old Illinois Central Railroad station. He also presided over the funeral at Roberts Temple.

“I remember her saying that it was horrific and the people were passing out because Mamie Till Mobley wanted the people to see exactly how her son was presented to her,” said her daughter, Sharon Roberts. “She was the first lady, and she had a very active role in greeting people and working people in and assisting them.”

Mamie Till Mobley collapses when her son Emmett’s body arrives at the old Illinois Central Railroad station after his murder by racists in Mississippi. On her left, with the white collar, is Alva Doris Roberts’ husband, Bishop Isaiah L. Roberts, who presided over the funeral. On the right, also dressed in clerical black, is Bishop Louis Henry Ford, who did the youth’s eulogy. An Illinois freeway is named after Bishop Ford. | Sun-Times library

An estimated 50,000 people lined up to view his body, some collapsing at the sight. Photos of his battered corpse appeared in Jet magazine. Disgust and outrage at the Chicago youth’s murder helped propel the civil rights movement.

“Mother Roberts” died of cancer April 18 at her home at 62nd and Michigan. She was 101.

In addition to her link to the Till case, she also had ties to the growth of gospel music and to the early days of African-American radio.

Until last month, “She was still going to church,” said Robert M. Marovich, author of the book “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.” “They had a 100th birthday party for her. She still was dressed for church. She grew up in church. That’s what she knew.”

She was born Alva Johnson in Walls, Oklahoma. After her family moved to Des Moines, she performed with one of the first “recording pastors” — the singing Rev. F.W. McGee.

“She was in his ‘Sunshine Band,’ ’’ Marovich said.

Her father, a skilled plasterer, came to Chicago in search of steady work, and Mrs. Roberts went to Wendell Phillips High School.

“She was proud to have completed the 11th grade,” her daughter, Sharon Roberts, wrote in a biography.

Her future father-in-law, Bishop William Matthew Roberts, built Roberts Temple and headed it from 1916 to 1954, when it grew into the biggest Church of God in Christ in the nation, Marovich said. He had 13 children. A daughter, Gertrude, married Jack L. Cooper, one of the nation’s first African-American radio announcers, who appeared on Chicago’s WSBC in the 1920s.

Gertrude Cooper had her own radio program, one of many homemaking shows of the ’30s that offered women on-air sisterhood and money-saving tips. Through Jack L. Cooper, Bishop William Roberts secured broadcast time for a show. Another daughter, Minnie Pearl Roberts, was his announcer, Marovich said.

His son, who would grow up to be Bishop Isaiah L. Roberts, had a radio show that started in the 1950s called “May I Help You?” Letter writers asked him for all kinds of aid, from marital counseling to assistance in finding missing relatives, Marovich said.

“Anything anybody had a problem with, particularly, adjusting to city life, they’d listen to Brother Isaiah, and he’d try and help them out,” Marovich said.

The Church of God in Christ was a welcoming home for rural African-Americans from the South who chafed at the somewhat staid confines of northern, urban houses of worship, Marovich said. With its exuberant Pentecostal music and glossolalia — speaking in tongues — its churches rocked, in the words of a traditional gospel song, with “that old-time religion.”

Alva Doris Roberts, first lady of Roberts Temple. | Provided photo

Young Alva met her future husband because of her regular attendance at Roberts Temple. She had lost her first husband in a train accident, her daughter wrote, and “being a quiet, young, single, saved, sanctified and Holy Ghost-filled woman, she caught the attention” of her future mother-in-law, Mamie Roberts.

She asked Alva for a photo to show her son, and Mamie Roberts wrote an inscription on the back: “Mama’s choice for you . . . if someone doesn’t get her first.”

Mrs. Roberts’ quiet personality complemented the fiery preaching of her husband, who headed the church from 1955 to 1989. She hosted many preachers and evangelists at their home, as well as gospel great Mahalia Jackson.

Her family doted on her. “At age 90, you wanted a diamond ring. You got it. At age 95, you wanted a fur coat. You got it,” her daughter wrote.

Services have been held. Mrs. Roberts’ 3-pound Chihuahua named Bella, was at the funeral, dressed in the funeral theme colors of pink and black. Her casket was transported to Oak Woods Cemetery in a white carriage drawn by white horses.