By Angelique H. Caffrey
“I never thought I would say this was my profession.” It’s an honest – and revealing – remark from a PA Representative who has held his seat since the mid-1980s. Although he admits he had an interest in politics from about the age of 10, James Roebuck, Jr. never consciously intended to become a legislator.
Growing up in Philadelphia, he was a member of a politically active church, Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church. The pastor at the time was well-known as an agent of social change, and was the first African-American asked to speak at a Democratic convention in the earlier part of the 20th century. “My church was involved in the civil rights movement, and actively pursued policies. It wasn’t unusual for major politicians to speak at our Sunday services – that was normal,” he explains. “I stood on corner and collected money for NAACP – everyone was about making the world a better place. Many years later, I was on a trip to Israel, and a member of the trip mentioned that he had been a speaker at our church! It was a magnet for people.”
Roebuck left the Philadelphia area after graduating from an academically-driven high school, Central High School. The all-boys institute of learning prepared him well for college at the Virginia Union, where he graduated with honors in only three years. He received a Master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and served as an educator at Drexel University. While back in Philadelphia, he saw the need for change and eventually moved into the political realm. “I got a job in city government, and shortly after, the Representative died. I received the endorsement and won in June during a special election… right in the middle of budget time!” he adds with a chuckle.
He would be the first to admit that the 188th congressional district he represents is very diverse across all levels from social to economic, which brings unique challenges. At the same time, he’s proud to serve an extremely tolerant community accepting of differences among individuals. Over his more than 30 years in the House, he’s been able to influence changes, including pushing more negotiation and compromise between members of the parties. He wants to see more of this in the coming years. “In the 1980s, we could have debates and differences on the House floor. But afterwards we could go out together. Nothing was locked in stone.” His goal is to forge relationships beyond members of opposing political parties. “When you make friends, you understand issues better.”
Roebuck may no longer teach history, but it still plays a huge role in his life. He’s a voracious reader, enjoying books on everything from the liberal party in England to early African-American entrepreneurs. When he was younger, he traveled extensively, visiting Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Caribbean, among other countries. A Fulbright grant enabled to spend the summer in India and Pakistan. Yet he was always glad to come back to the states. “You realize the quality of life is better than anything you would experience anywhere else. The freedom is greater. We are a beacon and model for the world.”
To give back to the young people in the 188th district, Roebuck has joined a tutoring program at a local elementary school. There, he helps children as young as first grade improve their reading skills. This year will be his fifth as a tutor. “I like working with young people,” he notes. “I understand some of the difficulties that our teachers have.”
In fact, his wife of more than 25 years was a K-8 educator who worked with children who mostly came from the local housing project. She passed away recently of pulmonary fibrosis. He credits her with having been a “good antidote” to his more naturally introverted personality, speaking fondly of her outgoing nature.
This election cycle, Roebuck has no opponents for his seat and looks forward to remaining a senior member of the House.