For more than half a century, Rachel Robinson has been honoring the memory and contributions of her late husband, Jackie. She established the Jackie Robinson Foundation, an organization that supports students financially and develops future leaders. She was a civil rights activist and a pioneer in medicine alongside her husband, the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern period. Rachel earned a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from New York University in 1961 and began her career as a nurse in the mental health field. Later in life, she worked as an assistant professor of nursing at Yale University and as the director of nursing at the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
As she approaches her 100th birthday on July 19, David Robinson, 70, the eldest of Rachel and Jackie’s three children, thinks about the lessons she taught him and the legacy she left behind. He runs a coffee cooperative in Tanzania and serves as a director of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
At the age of six or seven, my mother would tell me stories before bed, and in them, I played the role of a knight at King Arthur’s Round Table. It’s always been about the drama of a righteous cause encountering adversity. To ensure that justice was served, the knights would band together and lift their swords in unison.
I believe the dynamic she imagined for her children in bedtime tales was an attempt to impart a sense of power to them. My mother spent nearly a year looking for a home for our family throughout Long Island and into Connecticut because of discriminatory practices in the 1950s.
Our family wasn’t a good fit for a given neighborhood or the property was no longer for sale, so she would wait for The New York Times every Sunday and peruse real estate listings. My mother was interviewed by the Bridgeport Herald as part of a series on housing discrimination, and Stamford citizens encouraged our family to meet with real estate brokers. In 1954, my family relocated to Stamford, Connecticut. My father, Jackie Robinson, was nearing the end of his seventh season with the Brooklyn Dodgers when this happened. Sharon was four years old and Jackie Jr. was seven. When I was two years old, I was a baby.
I was raised in a semi-rural area of Connecticut. Six acres of land and three sides of forest surrounded our family’s home when it was built. About 50 yards from our house, on both sides of the forest, was a lake. A reservoir sat just beyond the forest’s edge. As a child, I was able to spend most of the day away from home. That’s what we did as children during the summer. The amount of time I spent in the woods alone fishing and roaming was permitted. As a child, I had the opportunity to explore and learn thanks to the support of both of my parents. A guy of few words, my father instilled in me a sense of leadership and responsibility via his deeds. Rachel Robinson, my mother, was more than happy to explain things in greater detail.
She was a psychiatric student who, having previously earned a bachelor’s degree, returned to school to earn a nursing degree. She wanted to learn more about mental health, and we had a large collection of books on psychology, human development, and human circumstances that she could utilize. Even though I couldn’t read the books, the names and sheer volume of them gave me the impression that there was more to the world than what meets the eye.
Afterward, she took us to the movies. Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel, Man of La Mancha, and Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr., all excellent films. My mum adores opera and other forms of classical music. In our living room was a record player. The spinner was in the midst of a six-foot-tall cabinet with records on top. The speaker was enormous, measuring perhaps two and a half by two feet, or perhaps much less. My mother’s music was a constant presence in our home growing up, and it provided me with a broader language than just words. Without any knowledge of Italian or French, I was overcome with emotion at operas I had never heard of. My mother instilled this in me as a child.
The emotions elicited by classical music and opera go well beyond mere entertainment value. It’s intense. Wind, string, and percussion instruments make up the majority of classical music. It’s the interplay of disparate sounds, the kind you encounter in everyday life. You think and feel as well as consume and exhale air. The fact that my mum enjoys music so much is a testament to her deep appreciation of the complexities of life.
In psychiatry, healing and growth are the primary goals. That, I believe, is what has allowed her to preserve her optimism and sense of hope. There is no doubt in my mind that we have achieved great progress in many areas of human development throughout the years, and this was the cornerstone of my education.
You and your activism and your participation in justice were a part of that era. Everything we ate, even the air we breathed, was tainted by the disease. Reflection and discussion of societal concerns took place every day. When we were growing up, our parents made an effort to maintain a level playing field at the dinner table. There was a desire for it to be upbeat. They would discuss the difficulties faced by the Freedom Riders as they traveled by busload to the South to confront segregation. My parents sponsored the first-ever “Afternoon of Jazz” in our Stamford, Connecticut, home in the summer of 1963 to collect money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). There was Dizzy Gillespie in attendance. In the same way, Duke Ellington was a pioneer in jazz. MLK Jr. paid a visit to our house and spoke to us about the importance of equality. Your participation in social growth shaped who you were and what role you played at a certain point in time. Our way of life and identity was shaped in this way.
Anger, irritation, and even sadness were all on the menu at one point or another. When the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, killing four young girls, there was nothing you could say to comfort the bereaved families.
When my mother and father sent me to an all-white school, they were fully aware of what they were doing. In a private school with 400 to 600 kids, I was the sole African-American. Jack and Rachel Robinson were not only aware of what was happening in American society, but they also placed their child in an atmosphere where those topics would be discussed on a regular basis.
At that time, when my father was playing baseball, no one was getting extremely rich and comfortable with baseball pay. My father didn’t make a fortune. That wasn’t how time was measured. After his playing days were over, my father went on to become the first African-American vice president of a major American firm, Chock full o’ Nuts, in 1957. Imagine how different my life would be if I didn’t have my parents and the people I grew up with around me. My father’s maternal grandmother worked as a sharecropper in Georgia, and her mother was born a slave and raised as a sharecropper’s daughter. My maternal grandpa served in World War I and was stationed in France, where he was threatened with court-martial for making friends with white inhabitants of France. After being gassed during the war, his life expectancy was significantly reduced. His influence on my mother’s worldview and feeling of identity was something she wished to pass on to her own children and grandchildren.
A strong foundation of inner strength, whether it was acquired through fictional bedtime stories or through travel was a priority for my mother.
In 1967, my mother and I traveled to Tanzania for the first time. At the time, I was between the ages of 15 and 16. Because of how much time I’ve spent here, you could argue that she had a significant impact on my life. It was a trip to Italy and Spain for my parents and me. When my father returned to work after a golf tournament in Spain, my mother and I went on a trip to Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Ghana with my grandmother. Even though the trip only lasted two or three weeks, it had a profound effect on my life.
Despite her lack of a strong Pan-African bent or political purpose, she introduced me to globalization, global dynamics, and my ancestral motherland. This is the world, with all seriousness. In her 30s and 40s, I don’t think she had even left the US, yet this was her approach to parenting.
She went out of her way to ensure that everyone had an enjoyable and stress-free time. But at night, I recall her checking the bank account to make sure we had enough money to last us through the following week. To be able to show the vision, but also make sure the resources were available, is what my mother is all about.
As far as human development and self-awareness are concerned, she is a brilliant woman. She had the distinct impression that this was a world that her children and grandchildren will inherit and inhabit in the years to come. That’s what she wanted people to see as well as hear.
To put it another way: My father’s decision to integrate baseball in 1947 was the first time in American history that racial prejudice, segregation, and the subjugation of African-Americans had been elevated to our national game. It heightened the level of awareness that people were paying attention. He had a profound impact on the country, and he was a part of a movement that would continue for the next 30 years.
Our family, the African American community, and American culture need to remember and recognize the legacy of my mother’s father for decades to come. Being the son of Jackie Robinson is both a blessing and a pleasure. Put our ambitions, meaning in life, and the most important things into perspective. If we don’t recall how far we’ve come as a society since the 1940s and 1950s, we won’t be able to build on that progress in the future.
Neither my father nor any lady other than my mother would have been able to handle the pressure. They were both in their twenties when they first met. It was just two UCLA students who met and fell in love, with none of the historical significance of brilliance associated with them. After that, the rest of the historical record was shaped. Ultimately, it is a tale of two people who fall in love.
Immediately following his death in 1972, my mother began to show signs of her future role as an organizer. He passed away one month after she was elected president of the Jackie Robinson Construction Corporation. Jackie Robinson Foundation was established a year after her death in 1973 when she founded foundation along with family and friends and chaired the first meetings.
Since its inception, the foundation has never done anything except give financial assistance to those in need. It provides counseling, mentorship, and a family and community atmosphere where students feel like they belong. That all came through her school and employment experiences, which helped her develop the human connections necessary to sustain the foundation’s financial and educational resources.
When I opted not to return to Stanford University for a second year in 1984, I returned to Africa and permanently relocated to Tanzania with my family. At the beginning of this year, my family and neighbors founded a cooperative of small-scale coffee growers.
More than a dozen times in the past, my mother has traveled from New York to see me and my siblings.
Incredibly, the Rachel Robinson International Fellowship Program was able to welcome close to 50 Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars to Tanzania in 2018 and 2019. Besides taking me to Tanzania as a teenager, she established a program to ensure that all of the alumni and students of the Jackie Robinson Foundation had that vision of a world, as well.
Making progress takes several generations. The world has undergone thousands of years of oppression and brutality because of the enslavement of African Americans in this country for generations. In order to change, numerous generations will need to work together with some form of philosophical framework. At the end of the day, these are the things that will make our life more meaningful and allow us to pass away with a sense of accomplishment.
As a member of the Robinson clan, I’m incredibly fortunate. In addition to my wife, I have ten children, all of whom I cherish deeply. That multigenerational transformation may be seen in all of them as a result of their contact with and knowledge of their grandmothers and grandfathers as well as what their parents have done. It’s in this that I put my trust and hope.