Robinson, Rachel 1922–
Rachel Robinson 1922–
Corporate leader, activist, professor, nurse, wife, and mother, Rachel Isum Robinson is a woman of enormous accomplishments, her own and those achieved jointly with her husband, Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 when he played with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Together the couple supported numerous causes, but particularly civil rights in and out of the sports sphere. Since her husband’s premature death at age 54, Robinson has used her ability and his legacy to further the causes they so ardently supported. As she explained in the memoir Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, “I was the support person so often misidentified as the ‘little woman behind the great man,’ but I was neither little nor behind him. I felt powerful by his side as his partner, essential, challenged, and greatly loved.” And so she is today—beloved by millions. “For a score and two years now,” wrote Michael Bamberger for Knight-Ridder/Tribune New Service, “Rachel Robinson has been the proxy for everything Jackie Robinson once represented. To an incalculable number of people ... Rachel Robinson represents Ebbets Field when it was a neighborhood baseball temple, New York when Benny Goodman’s music streamed from radios, the United States when it was emerging heroically from the Second World War. She represents an era of limitless hope, when anything seemed possible in relations between blacks and whites,” he continued.
One of three children, Rachel Isum was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She was a student in nursing at the University of California at Los Angeles(UCLA), where in 1941 she met and began dating Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a charming and handsome athlete. That year they began what would be a five-year engagement during which they were separated by long distance. “We were young and in love,” Robinson remembered to Kostya Kennedy of Sports Illustrated, “and though we didn’t know what we would do, we were confident. We thought Jack might coach high school. But we knew that would have been settling; we wanted to go beyond that,” she added. While Jackie Robinson played football in Hawaii and served in the army, Isum worked nights as a riveter for Lockheed Aircraft and spent her days in nurse training, graduating in 1945, the winner of the Florence Nightingale Award for clinical excellence.
Born in 1922 in Los Angeles, CA. Education: University of California, 1945, B.S. (nursing); New York University, M.S. (psychiatric nursing), 1959. Married Jack Roosevelt Robinson, February 10, 1946; children: Jack, Jr. (deceased), Sharon, David.
Career: Nurse-therapist, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1960-65; assistant professor of nursing, Yale University School of Nursing, 1965-72; director of nursing, Connecticut Mental Health Center, 1965-72; president, Jackie Robinson Development Corp., 1972-86; founder and board member, Jackie Robinson Foundation, 1973-96.
Awards : Florence Nightingale Award, 1945, University of California; OIC Distinguished Humanitarian Award, 1975; International Award, Operation Push, 1981; Lillian Moran Award for Distinguished Service, Yer-wood Center, 1981; Candance Award for Distinguished Service, 1982; Black Achievers Award, Equitable Life, 1985; Award of Excellence, Black Entertainment-Sports Lawyers, 1988; Living Legacy Award, Women’s International Center, 1988; History Makers Award, Associated Black Charities, 1989; Lifetime Career Achievement Award, Dollars and Sense Magazine, 1989; Theodore “Pop” Myles Leadership Award, Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, 1990; Trumpet Award, Turner Broadcasting, 1992; Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan Innovative Award, 1993; The Branch Rickey Award, 1995; National Urban League Humanitarian Award, 1996. Honorary Degrees: St. John’s University, 1981; Springfield College, 1984; McAlester College, 1985; Boston College, 1991; University of Massachusetts, 1994; Suffolk University, 1995; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1996; New York University, 1996.
Addresses: c/o Jackie Robinson Foundation, 3 West 35th St., New York, NY 10001.
After leaving the army, Jackie Robinson looked for suitable employment and joined Negro League baseball in 1945. The following year, the couple married in a traditional church wedding in West Los Angeles, and Robinson began her years as a baseball wife. Because Jackie was disappointed by the prejudice, deprivation, and taxing schedules of Negro League baseball, he was ready to entertain an offer made by Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, to join baseball’s Major Leagues. Both Jackie and Rachel attended the meetings at which Rickey pitched his offer. He would start in the minor leagues and move to the major leagues after a trial period. Part of the agreement was that he must stoically endure the inevitable negative reactions of players and fans, without reacting. Rickey must have known the important supporting part Rachel would play in this ground-breaking effort. After enduring spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida, Jackie Robinson played with the Montreal Royals triple-A team, and the couple were welcomed into the Montreal community.
Life with the Brooklyn Dodgers was a trial by fire. In Jackie Robinson, Robinson described how her role as the wife of a history-making major league baseball player evolved. “My most profound instinct as Jack’s wife was to protect him—an impossible task. I could, however, be a consistent presence to witness and validate the realities, love him without reservation, share his thoughts and miseries, discover with him the humor in the ridiculous behavior against us, and, most of all, help maintain our fighting spirit. I knew our only chance to survive was to be ourselves.” Over her husband’s ten-year career with the Dodgers, she attended as many home games as she could, asserting, “I couldn’t afford to miss a home game; I felt I needed to be there to witness and share in what was happening to Jack.” This meant steeling herself against the bigoted taunts of fans and cruel on-field plays such as pitchers aiming for Robinson’s head or base runners’ sliding into second with their spikes up to cause injury. Roger Wilkins, writing in Nation, gave Robinson the credit she deserved. “She was not simply the dutiful little wife. She was Jack’s co-pioneer. She had to live through the death threats, endure the vile screams of the fans and watch her husband get knocked down by pitch after pitch. And because he was under the strictest discipline not to fight, spike, curse or spit back, she was the one who had to absorb everything he brought home. She was beautiful and wise and replenished his strength and courage.” “When couples are put under that kind of pressure, it can push you apart and create a tension between you,” she told Ross Atkin of the Christian Science Monitor. “For Jack and me, it was just the reverse. We formed a kind of partnership: ‘It’s us.’ It wasn’t just him and it wasn’t just me. There was nothing coming between us,” she continued.
Robinson’s role included creating a safe haven—a home that was a sanctuary from the outside world and place where “love, beauty, comfort, and order surrounded and nourished” their family of five. “He needed what I could provide, and I felt satisfied and important,” Robinson reminisced in Jackie Robinson. The couple returned to California during the off-seasons, until 1950, when they made New York City their home, buying a home in St. Albans, Long Island. By the time their three children, Jack, Jr., Sharon, and David, were born, the couple began to look for a more rural and protective environment. After being thwarted in their efforts to buy in a Connecticut community, Robinson and a white friend conspired to trick bigoted realtors into selling land. In 1955, the year the Dodgers won the World Series, the Robinson family built a home on six acres in Stamford. Robinson found great satisfaction in her role as homemaker. “Being home also allowed me to enjoy my children and support their development. I was one of those suburban mothers so often caricatured as den mother, scout leader, the works: participating in neighborhood drives and causes; racing here and there with a car full of children to events, lessons, games; and present when they came home for talks, snacks, and homework.”
After her husband retired from baseball in 1956 and became the vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’Nuts Coffee, Robinson returned to a career of nursing. Although during the first dozen years of marriage she had been challenged and satisfied with her role of wife, mother, and homemaker, she gradually found herself wanting to stretch herself and create an identity for herself separate from her husband. After their youngest child, David, began school all day, she applied to New York University’s Graduate School of Nursing. In 1959 Robinson earned her masters degree in psychiatric nursing and took a research position at Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Department of Social and Community Psychiatry, which she held for five years.
In 1965 Robinson was invited to become Director of Nursing for the Connecticut Mental Health Center and an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Yale University. With her colleagues, she established new models and expanded roles for psychiatric nurses, work that was in the vanguard of the mental health field. Robinson used this training in her role as director of the Connecticut Mental Health Center, a post that she held simultaneously with her teaching position.
During the early seventies, fate dealt several powerful blows to Robinson. On June 17, 1971, Jack Robinson, Jr. died in a car crash and the family united in grief. Sixteen months later, on October 23, 1972, Jack Robinson, Sr. lost his battle with diabetes and heart disease when he suffered a heart attack in their home. His last act was to race down the hall, embrace his wife, and tell her, “I love you.” After the funeral, Robinson threw herself into their work, resigning from her position at Yale University to take control of the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which had been founded to build housing for people of moderate and low incomes.
A year after her husband’s death, Robinson created the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a nonprofit organization to promote leadership development and scholarship. “I wanted a vehicle to perpetuate his memory, his name, and his spirit,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. The foundation’s mission has always included this credo: “Serving as an advocate for youths with the greatest need, the Foundation assists increasing numbers of promising minority youths in realizing their full potential as well-educated and active participants in the process of social change.” A top priority of the foundation is the Education and Leadership Development Program, which awards grants of $5,000 per year for four years of college for top minority high school graduates with demonstrated financial need. In any given year, the foundation supports about 130 scholars attending institutions nationwide. While undergraduates, the Jackie Robinson Scholars are expected to achieve at high academic levels and engage in community service activities. To recognize the service component, the Spike Lee Motivation Award, an annual cash award, has been given through an endowment by the film maker since 1995. Other support services for Jackie Robinson Scholars include a mentor program for academic, emotional, social, and career counseling; an annual networking weekend in New York City that includes workshops and social networking events; a toll-free assistance line; and summer job and postgraduate placement assistance. An indication of the success of this program is that 91 percent of students graduate from their given universities.
Despite the fact that the founders were determined to never seek government funding, within three years of its creation the foundation began offering academic scholarships. Many corporations, fund-raising events, and generous individuals support the foundation. The annual Jackie Robinson Foundation dinner, hosted by comedian Bill Cosby, the “An Afternoon of Jazz” in Norwalk, Connecticut, and the Jackie Robinson Foundation Invitational Golf Classic, in the greater Los Angeles area, raise significant funds for the Foundation. Other sources of income are the memorabilia, including specially minted coins, that commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball and Robinson’s memoir, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. After years at the head of the Foundation’s board, Robinson turned over the chair in 1996 to Leonard S. Copleman, Jr., the president of the National League of Baseball Clubs.
Robinson has been the long-time caretaker of her husband’s legacy. She handles all the decisions concerning the use of his likeness on memorabilia or for marketing purposes, carefully selecting quality products and worthy causes. At the same time, she wished to alter the public image of Jackie Robinson as the aggressive black man sportscasters made him out to be by allowing glimpses of his life as a loving husband and father in Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. In 1997, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, in conjunction with Major League Baseball Home Video and Orion Home Video, brought out the video Jackie Robinson: Breaking Barriers, which include interviews with family members, Robinson’s teammates, and contemporaries, as well as many family photographs. According to Robinson, the video “best captures the intimate relationship we forged to overcome the myriad of obstacles Jack faced throughout his life.” An authorized biography and a film about Jackie Robinson by Spike Lee are among the projects that Robinson has also supported.
On April 15, 1997, Major League Baseball celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major leagues by retiring his uniform number “42” at a game between the Dodgers and Mets at Shea Stadium, which was halted at the fifth inning to conduct the ceremony. After speeches by commissioner of baseball Bud Selig and President Bill Clinton, Rachel Robinson stood at home plate to say: “This anniversary has given us an opportunity as a nation to celebrate together the triumphs of the past and the social progress that has occurred. It has also given us an opportunity to reassess the challenges of the present. It is my passionate hope that we can take this reawakened feeling of unity and use it as a driving force so that each of us can recommit to equality of opportunity for all Americans.”
Robinson, Rachel, with Lee Daniels. Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. Harry Abrams (New York), 1996.
Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, October 6, 1996, pp. E2, M3.
Boston Globe, September 23, 1989, p. 25; March 28, 1997, p. C5.
Chicago Tribune, December 1, 1996, p. 5.
Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 1995, p. 10; December 5, 1996, p. B4.
Jet, April 1, 1996, pp. 59-52; April 21, 1997, pp. 51-52.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 7, 1994, p. 1207K6614; September 19, 1996, p. 919K6063.
Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1987, p. V1; December 8, 1991, p. C3; September 22, 1996, p. BR1; December 29, 1996, p. 9; March 31, 1997, p. S2.
Nation, April 21, 1997, pp. 4-5.
New York, September 23, 1996, pp. 46-47.
New York Times, January 22, 1981, p. 25; December 2, 1996, p. B2; April 16, 1997, p. C23.
New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1996, p. 18.
People Weekly, September 16, 1996, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, September 30, 1996, p. 72.
Sports Illustrated, September 16, 1996, p. 18.
USA Today, September 26, 1996, p. C3.
Wall Street Journal, April 3, 1997, p. B11.
Jackie Robinson: Breaking Barriers (video), Major League Baseball Home Video and Orion Home Video, 1997.
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