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Dr. Frances C. Roberts, one of UAH’s ‘founding lights,’ honored with marker dedication

HUNTSVILLE — This month, the University of Alabama in Huntsville helped honor one of its own, Dr. Frances Cabaniss Roberts, who played a major role in the founding of UAH and also in helping shape Huntsville into the community it is today.

A long-time faculty member in the history department, Roberts’ legacy as an educator and historic preservation advocate is what led her being honored with a historic marker at 603 Randolph Ave., her former home.

Dr. Frances Roberts and Dorothy Adair, far left, join Lynn Jones of the Historic Huntsville Foundation and
preservation architect Harvie Jones at Dr. Roberts’ Randolph Street home.
(Courtesy UAH Frances Cabaniss Roberts Collection)

The marker was unveiled May 6 by the Historic Huntsville Foundation and the Huntsville-Madison County Bicentennial Committee to celebrate the historian, author, preservationist and teacher. The program was highlighted by remarks from Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, UAH Interim President Dr. Charles L. Karr, and attorney Julian Butler.

Growing up in Sumter County, Roberts knew at an early age that she wanted to be a teacher. As a young adult, she pursued that dream, earning a bachelor’s degree from Alabama State Teachers College (now the University of West Alabama) and a master’s degree from the University of Alabama. She taught in Sumter County before coming to Huntsville to teach for 12 years in the public schools.

As an educator, she continually broke new ground for women. Roberts was the University of Alabama Extension Center’s first full-time faculty member in 1950. Her 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.

Dr. Frances Roberts
(Courtesy UAH Frances Cabaniss Roberts Collection)

Karr’s remarks at the ceremony lauded Roberts’ 30 years of dedicated service to UAH. She applied to teach at the University of Alabama Huntsville Center in 1949 and was one of the initial faculty members when the school opened in 1950. She advocated for a separate department of history and became its first chair in 1966. She was instrumental in restructuring the Huntsville Center into the  University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1969.

When the extension center became UAH, Roberts established the history department, serving as chair until 1970, and her dissertation, “Background and Formative Period in the Great Bend and Madison County,” was published in celebration of Alabama’s Bicentennial. The book remains a seminal work on the settlement patterns of Madison County and Alabama’s early statehood history and proceeds from book sales benefit the UAH Frances Cabaniss Roberts Scholarship fund, awarded to outstanding history majors.

UAH’s first president, Dr. Benjamin Graves, called Dr. Roberts “one of the key lanterns that lit this place. She was a great historian to begin with and a woman of vision. She was just a tremendous person.” She was also the founding director of the UAH Academic Advising and Information Center.

Her love of learning from and preserving the past motivated her to become an authority on regional history.

As Huntsville pushed into the space age, Roberts worked relentlessly to ensure the city’s rapid growth did not come at the expense of its historic buildings and neighborhoods. She was a founding member of the Huntsville-Madison County Historical Society, president of the Alabama Historical Association and, along with local architect Harvie Jones, wrote the nomination that created the Twickenham Historic District.

Roberts helped save Weeden House and saw it become a museum, and she played a role in the founding of Alabama Constitutional Hall Village and Burritt on the Mountain as well.

Dr. Roberts helps a student at the original Huntsville Extension Center (UAH Frances Cabaniss Roberts Collection)

In 1978, Roberts received the Alabama Award of Merit for Outstanding Service in the Preservation of Alabama History. UAH dedicated the Humanities Building on campus in her honor, naming it Roberts Hall in 1988. The Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her into their ranks in 2013. To further honor her legacy, UAH faculty and students created a traveling exhibit, “Dr. Frances C. Roberts: Her Life and Legacy.”

A prolific collector of historical materials, Roberts has archival collections at three universities: UAH, the University of Alabama, and the University of West Alabama. 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, known as the UAH Frances Cabaniss Roberts collection. This archival collection documents Huntsville and Madison County history from the late 1700s to the early 2000s and is a trove of genealogical and local history research.

After being diagnosed with Guillaine-Barre Syndrome, Roberts retired from UAH in 1980, earlier than she would have liked, but by that time she had already had an immeasurable impact on thousands of students.

When she died in 2000, the same could be said for the Huntsville community, thanks to a lifetime of service and tireless advocacy.

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