His love of mathematics began in the aisles of the grocery store.
Somewhere between the stacks of crackers and the end caps of canned green beans, Charles Roberts learned to add and subtract while tugging on the apron strings of his mathematician mother.
They would make the short trip from their home in Pleasant Hill to the Colonial Stores grocery on College Hill. It was an early classroom.
“I would tag along, and my mother would make a note of the price of everything,’’ Charles said. “When she would get to the register, she would tell the cashier the price of what she was buying. It freaked them out. I’m sure no one else did that.’’
Mabel Roberts kept tabs on every item that went into her buggy. There were no pocket calculators in the 1950s. She figured it out the old-fashioned way – with a piece of paper and a No. 2 pencil.
For 40 years, she taught elementary and eighth-grade math in local school districts and at the Georgia Academy for the Blind. It all added up as having a major influence on her son as he began to pursue his career path and passion.
Charles now is in his 50th year as an educator. Since 2001, he has been an associate professor of mathematics in Mercer University’s College of Professional Advancement. His responsibilities include serving as student development coordinator at Mercer’s regional academic centers across the state.
In 2015, he was recognized by Mercer as the recipient of the Joe and Jean Hendricks Excellence in Teaching Award. This year, he was selected to the joint steering committee of the National STEM Education Centers.
At his home on Lake Tobesofkee, where he lives with his wife, Adah, he is working on his memoirs, tentatively titled, “The Education and Liberation Journey of a Southern Black Man.’’
“I always have loved math,’’ he said. “I wrote in my book that I still don’t clearly understand why I was so much better at it than the other students.’’
Maybe it was genetics. Maybe it was his birthright, although his mother rarely helped him with his geometry homework.
He attended elementary and middle school at St. Peter Claver on Ward Street in Pleasant Hill. In high school, he and other black students from Pleasant Hill made round trips on an old “green and cream” Bibb transit bus to attend Peter G. Appling High across the river on Shurling Drive. He earned money in the summers cutting grass.
At the end of his junior year in 1964, he was among those African-American students selected and given the opportunity to integrate Bibb schools as part of “freedom of choice’’ program. But he chose to remain at Appling, where he was influenced by teachers Raymond Baker and Ella Carter and was named valedictorian of his class of 160 students.
He became one of the first black students to enroll at Mercer. Although he said he had “no negative incidents” on campus because of his race, his freshman year was challenging. He was the only black in any of his classes. There were no black professors.
“I had no social life at all,’’ he said. “I would go to my classes, study in the library and go home.’’
That summer, his math professor, Dr. William Palmer, asked him to serve as a tutor with the new Upward Bound program at Mercer. About 80 percent of the 100 young people brought to campus were African-Americans. Charles wasn’t that much older than the students, and he knew many of them from his neighborhood.
The enrichment program provided the foundation for his future work as an educator. He was mentored by Dean of Students Joe Hendricks and English professor Dr. Mary Wilder. Both provided him with encouragement and life lessons. He worked with Upward Bound until he graduated in 1969 and continued after he was hired to teach Algebra at Lanier 50 years ago this fall.
Lanier became Central High his second year of teaching. He founded the Black History and Culture Club. He left to pursue his master’s degree at Michigan State, with plans to return to Central in two years. But he ended up staying and teaching for almost 30 years. He met Adah when they were graduate students. (When they moved to Macon in 2000, Adah became the city’s finance director under former Mayor C. Jack Ellis.)
Charles received widespread praise for helping design and develop the Charles Drew Science Scholars program at Michigan State, which is still thriving today. While living in Lansing, he implemented and after-school program at same high school basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson attended.
There might have been a Magic Johnson, but there was no magic wand.
“I have been blessed to have had all the opportunities that have opened up along the way,’’ he said. “I couldn’t have just waved a magic wand and said I’ll do this, and I’ll do that. … Not to discount my preparation and hard work, but I could not have mandated for it to happen. I was in the right place at the right time.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.