Rachel Robinson has preserved the memory and legacy of her husband, Jackie, for 50 years. She is the founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a nonprofit that provides college scholarships and leadership training. Alongside her husband, who was the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, she was a civil rights activist, and in her own right, a pioneer in the medical field. In 1961, Rachel graduated from New York University with a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing. She was later the director of nursing for the Connecticut Mental Health Center and an assistant professor of nursing at Yale University.
In honor of her 100th birthday on July 19, David Robinson, 70, the youngest of Rachel and Jackie’s three children, who manages a coffee cooperative in Tanzania and is a director on the board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, in his own words reflects on what she instilled in him and her legacy.
When I was 6 or 7 years old, my mother would make up bedtime stories, and in them, I was a knight at King Arthur’s Round Table. It was always about the drama of facing extreme odds for a righteous cause. The knights would rally around the cause of justice and raise their swords in a united fashion to see that justice was done.
I think the imaginary dynamic she created in bedtime stories was all part of her wanting to give her children a sense of strength. America in that period was a fairly hostile environment; because of discriminatory practices in the 1950s, it took my mother nearly a year of searching across Long Island to Connecticut to find a home for our family.
She would wait for The New York Times every Sunday and pore over real estate listings only to be told our family wasn’t the “right fit” for a certain neighborhood, or that the house was no longer on the market. When the Bridgeport Herald published an interview with my mother as part of a series on housing discrimination, residents in Stamford, Connecticut, invited our family to meet with real estate brokers. That’s how we moved to Stamford in 1954. By then, my father, Jackie Robinson, was in his eighth year of playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and two seasons away from retiring. Jackie Jr. was 7 years old, Sharon 4. I was 2 years old.
I pretty much grew up in semi-rural Connecticut. Our family’s home was built on a 6-acre piece of land and surrounded by three sides of forest. On both sides of the forest, there was a lake about 50 yards from our home. And just beyond the forest, there was a reservoir. By the time I was 7 or 8 years old, I could be gone from morning until early afternoon. That’s what we did as kids in the summertime. I spent a lot of time in the woods by myself fishing and roaming, but that was allowable. Both of my parents believed in giving me the freedom to explore and learn. My father was a man of few words who taught by his actions of leadership and responsibility. My mother, Rachel Robinson, often provided greater verbal explanations.
She was a student of psychiatry; after having one degree already she went back to school and later became a nurse. She wanted to take on the challenge of learning more about mental health and we had an extensive library on psychological development, human development and human conditions. I couldn’t read the books, but just looking at the titles and the number of books on those subjects gave me a sense that there was something beyond the surface vision of the world.
She took us to the theater. I saw “Fiddler on the Roof” with Zero Mostel; I watched “Man of La Mancha” and “Golden Boy” with Sammy Davis Jr. My mother loves classical music and opera. We had a record system just off of the living room. There was a 6-foot cabinet with records on top and the spinner in the middle. The speaker was huge — two and a half by two, maybe half a foot wide. Music was part of our household, and growing up with her music gave me a sense of vocabulary beyond what was verbal. I wept at operas without knowing Italian or French. This is what my mother taught me.
What’s evoked in classical music and opera is beyond the musical. It’s emotional. What is classical music but a compilation of wind instruments, string instruments and percussion? It’s the various sound elements coming together, it’s the kind of complexity you find in life. Not only do you eat and breathe, but you think and feel. My mother’s love for music speaks to her understanding about the complexity of life.
If you’re involved in psychiatry, it’s all about healing and growing better. I think that’s what’s allowed her to maintain a sense of hope and optimism. Her educational foundation was based on a belief in social and human evolution, from a position that these things are possible, that in many things we have made huge strides.
Social activism and justice, and the role you played in both, that was the era. It was the bread and butter; it was the air we breathed. Not a day went by without a reflection or discussion of social issues. At home, our parents tried to keep a balanced picture at the dining room table. They wanted to be uplifting. I remember they would talk about the challenges the Freedom Riders faced going down by the busload to challenge segregation in the South. In the summer of 1963, my parents organized and hosted the first annual “Afternoon of Jazz” at our house in Stamford to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dizzy Gillespie was there. So was Duke Ellington. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to our home. Your involvement in social development determined who you were and the significance you had in that time period. That was how we lived and who we were.
Sometimes the emotions ranged from anger to frustration to sadness. In the worst hours, when the KKK bombed 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, and killed four little girls, there’s nothing you can say.
My mother was completely aware of what she was doing when she and my father sent me to an all-white school. I was the only African American in a private school of maybe 400 to 600 students. Not only was it happening in American society, not only was Jack and Rachel Robinson critically involved on a daily basis, but they put their child into an environment where those issues would be raised.
Jackie Robinson’s oldest living son David shares the lessons he learned from his father.
At that time, when my father was playing baseball, no one was getting excessively rich and comfortable on baseball salaries. My father was not making millions of dollars. That was not the measure of time. After his playing career, in 1957, my father became vice president of personnel at Chock full o’ Nuts — the first Black vice president of a major American corporation. It’s difficult to conceive how different my life would be without the family and parents that I grew up with. My grandmother on my father’s side was a sharecropper in Georgia; her own mother was born a slave. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a soldier in World War I stationed in France and was threatened to be court-martialed by the army for fraternizing with white French citizens. His life was substantially shortened after being gassed in the war. But he instilled in my mother a sense of the world and a sense of self that she wanted to pass on to her children.
My mother wanted to make sure her children had a solid foundation of inner strength, whether that was discovered through imaginary bedtime stories or through travel.
I first came to Tanzania in 1967 in the company of my mother. At that point I was 15 or 16 years old. I have now spent the majority of my life here, so you could say she played a huge role. My mother, father and I were in Italy and then Spain. My father was playing at a golf tournament in Spain and when he went back to work, my mother and I went on to Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana. It was a two or three week trip, but it had a substantial impact on my life.
She introduced me to globalization, global dynamics, the ancestral homeland, all without a strong Pan-African bend or political agenda. It was really — this is the world. I don’t even think she had left the States before she was in her 30s and maybe 40s, but this was her sense of parenting.
She made a point of allowing for a full and comfortable experience. But at night, I remember she would often be counting the money to make sure that we were covered for tomorrow and the next week. That’s who my mother is — the person who not only wanted to show the vision, but the practicality of making sure the resources were there.
She is an extremely intelligent woman, especially in human development and the understanding of self in the environment. She had a sense that this was a world her children and grandchildren would inherit and inhabit. She wanted them to know it and to see it.
When my father integrated baseball in 1947, it took discrimination, segregation, the oppression of African Americans out of the backwater and placed it on our national pastime, a sport in which a majority of Americans — Black and white — were fanatic about. It raised the level of attention of awareness. He changed the nation and was part of the movement to create change over the next three decades.
My mother has preserved his legacy for five decades because it’s critical for our family and the African American community and American society to recognize and remember. It is a privilege and a blessing to be Jackie Robinson’s son. It put in perspective our goals, the meaning of life and the things that were important. If we can’t remember when we made leaps into becoming a better society in the 1940’s and 50’s, then we’re missing the foundation on which we can build to become an even better place.
My father couldn’t have done it solo, and any woman other than my mother couldn’t have stood up to the pressure either. They met as young people. There was none of the historic significance or greatness of anybody — it was two young people at UCLA who met and fell in love. The whole historic story evolved thereafter. At its essence, it is a love story.
When my father died in 1972, you could see the beginnings of my mother as an organizer. One month after he passed, she became president of the Jackie Robinson Construction Corp., which built low- to moderate-level income housing. In 1973, a year later, she started the Jackie Robinson Foundation with family and friends, and chaired the meetings that began the development of the foundation.
The foundation has never just provided money. It provides counseling, mentoring, a family and community environment where students feel they are part of something. That all came from her educational and work experiences, building those human interactions which are critical to supporting the financial resources or educational resources that the foundation makes available.
I went back to Africa when I decided not to return to Stanford University for a second year and moved to Tanzania permanently in 1984. I now help manage a coffee cooperative of small-scale farms, which our family and neighbors established in 1995.
My mother has always been supportive and has made the 18-hour trip more than a dozen times to see her son and grandchildren.
Incredibly, in 2018 and 2019, we were able to welcome close to 50 Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars who came to Tanzania under the Rachel Robinson International Fellowship Program. Not only did she bring me to Tanzania when I was a teenager, but she instituted a program where the graduates and students who were part of the Jackie Robinson Foundation would also have that vision of a world.
Progress is multigenerational. Generations of African Americans were enslaved in this country; the world has endured thousands of years of oppressive and brutal behavior. All of that is going to require multiple generations working with some kind of philosophical foundation in order to change. It’s about human and social development — at the end of the day, these are the things we will sense as being valuable in our lives, making our passing more meaningful.
I’m extremely blessed to be part of the Robinson family. I have 10 children whom I love dearly. I see in all of them, based on their contact with their grandmother and their knowledge of their grandfather, and hopefully what their mother and father have done, an extension of that multigenerational change. This is what I place my faith in, and what I hope for.