Index Magazine: Columbus Roberts, the sharecropper who became a wealthy businessman, left indelible mark on Georgia Baptist Convention


COLUMBUS, Ga. — Columbus Roberts’ life was a rags to riches story of a struggling sharecropper who overcame long odds to become a wealthy businessman and one of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s most influential laymen.

Born in 1870, Roberts was the oldest of 11 children born to a hardscrabble family shortly after the Civil War. He dropped out of school when he was 10 to labor in the cottonfields.

From this humble start, with only a fourth-grade education, Roberts would amass a great fortune as a Coca Cola bottler, be elected Georgia’s agriculture commissioner, mount a strong bid for governor, and later serve as president of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

As a child, Roberts saw his parents slide deeper into debt with each passing year. When he turned 18 and the fall cotton harvest was finished, Roberts moved to Atlanta and took a job with the Southern Express Co., hauling mail and freight on a rail line that ran between Atlanta and Columbus, and sending money back home to help support his family.

The following year his father began working in a Columbus bottling plant. Roberts would visit his father at the plant during layovers. He was curious to see how the business ran, and, as he explained to the manager, he delivered some of their products on his route.

Roberts soon took a different job with Southern Express, transferring to Columbus to be near his family.

Two years later, in 1891, his father died. That’s when the responsibility fell on his shoulders for taking care of his mother and nine surviving siblings, ranging from the age of seven months to 17 years. He was 21.

While continuing to work for Southern Express, Roberts opened a small country store, which his 17-year-old sister managed. The store provided income for the family and food and goods at discounted prices.

Roberts, who accepted Christ and was baptized at 17, determined that his businesses practices would always conform to his Christian beliefs. A quote from in his 1951 biography, Columbus Roberts: Christian Steward Extraordinary, reflected his business model, “God was my senior partner in every undertaking, material or spiritual.”

A few years after his father’s death, Roberts was approached by a “friend” who wanted to partner with him to open a wholesale produce business. Leaving Southern Express, he relocated to Opelika, Alabama.

Roberts, an Alabama native. contributed a third of the startup cost and the partner the remaining two thirds. Roberts entered the partnership with the understanding that they would not sell alcohol. A couple of years later, the partner began pressuring him to sell alcohol, Roberts refused. The partner called in the loan and Roberts lost all his investment, but he remained true to his beliefs. He had also provided for his family for several years and learned valuable business skills that he would need in the future. Furthermore, he met and fell in love with a young lady who sang in the choir of the Opelika Baptist Church, Fannie Cobb. They were married in 1895 and in time would have two daughters and a son.

Roberts was able to open another country store, incorporating a new accounting practice he had researched called “cash and carry.” During the summer, because most people had gardens, sales at the store fell off. So, he decided to begin bottling soft drinks in the back of the store. It proved to be a good decision. After several years, Roberts expanded to two bottling operations, one in Columbus and the other Opelika, Ala. Earning more from the bottling operations, he sold the store.

In 1902, at the age of 31, Roberts purchased the third Coca Cola franchise in the country.

Coca Cola continued to expand and several of Roberts’ business innovations helped spur the company's growth. He is included in one of the historical displays at The World of Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta.

Roberts bottling operations continued to grow, and, in time, he diversified into other businesses, including a car dealership.

In 1918 and 1919, the Southern Baptist Convention inaugurated a debt elimination and capital improvement effort called “The 75 Million Campaign.” One promotional feature involved laymen who were called, “Five Minute Speakers.” They visited churches in their local associations speaking to encourage other lay people to support the campaign.

Roberts, already active in his church and association, became a “Five Minute Speaker” for the Columbus Baptist Association.

As he visited churches, the perceptive Roberts made an important observation. The churches led by better educated pastors did a better job of supporting missions. This was during an era when very few ministers had any formal education beyond high school. That is, if they had been fortunate enough to have attended high school.

Roberts surmised the best way to support all mission causes would be to support ministerial education. In time, those better-educated pastors would lead their churches to do a better job of supporting missions. It became a strategy that is still supporting missions and education today.

Roberts and his wife Fanny, who was elected to leadership positions in the Georgia and national Woman’s Missionary Union, began focusing much of their mission giving to Baptist higher education. Mercer University would be the primary recipient, but it was far from the only one.

In 1940 Roberts, who had been elected and served as Georgia’s Agricultural Commissioner in 1936, ran for governor. He was defeated in a three-way race. His loss was Georgia Baptists’ gain. During the final decade of life, he increased his involvement and support for missions and education. In 1946, elected by acclamation, he became the third layman to become president of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Roberts began channeling support for missions and education through the newly created Georgia Baptist Foundation. The foundation had been established in 1941 to manage endowment funds of Georgia Baptist schools. For several years the foundation existed primarily on paper until Roberts, between 1944 and 1948, gave over $900,000 to endow education and other mission causes. He helped bankroll the establishment of the Georgia Baptist Foundation and lent credibility to it via his support.

Because the funding was placed in an endowment trust, giving did not end when he died. Georgia Baptist colleges and universities including Shorter, Brewton-Parker and Truett McConnell, continue to receive funds from the trust.

The total amounts given to support missions and higher education would be hard to calculate. The impact of that giving on eternity is priceless. It’s an impact that continues to multiply through the work of the Georgia Baptist Foundation.

“Columbus Roberts was an excellent example of the faithfulness of so many Georgia Baptists over the years,” said Jonathan Gray, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Baptist Foundation “Whether large gifts like that of Mr. Roberts or smaller gifts from those who gave more sacrificially, the work of Georgia Baptists exists because of individuals who were devoted to the Lord believed we reach our state for Christ if we all worked together.  My hope is that others will be challenged by the example of Columbus Roberts and help continue this great work God is doing in our state and beyond.”

Rising from poverty and want, by overcoming obstacles, innovating and adopting business practices, and relying on his faith to guide, Roberts became a wealthy man who never forgot his humble roots. He was a faithful steward of what God had provided by investing it in the kingdom of God. He was a Baptist stewardship statesman like few laymen of any generation.