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Serving Youth

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Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella at Harlem YMCA, 1948, courtesy of University of Minnesota Libraries, CC-BY-NC 4.0

In the fall of 1948, one year after breaking the color line in modern-day Major League Baseball, Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson started his off-season work as a coach and counselor in the Boys Work Department at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street. Together with fellow Dodger Roy Campanella, Robinson coached sports each afternoon and spoke at school assemblies throughout the neighborhood, quickly doubling youth membership at the Y. The 1948 season was the first year that Robinson and Campanella had played together on the Dodgers. As teammates, Jackie and “Campy” developed a complicated relationship, with different approaches to handling racism on and off the field, but one of the things they shared was a commitment to working with youth.

Robinson’s work with the YMCA continued a long-standing commitment to positively influencing young people. He taught Sunday School while he attended Pasadena Junior College and ran athletic programs through the National Youth Administration after leaving UCLA. After working at the Harlem Y in 1948, Jackie supported the institution and the men, women, and children who used it as a community resource for the rest of his life. He served on the board, led fundraising campaigns for new facilities, and sponsored the Y’s Little League in 1955. Beyond the Y, Robinson used his platform to advocate for young people, speaking out on issues such as school integration, comprehensive anti-drug programs, and fundraising for scholarship programs.

Today, with a new school year underway, we are eager to continue Jackie’s commitment to supporting and engaging young people through innovative programs at the Jackie Robinson Museum.


Happy Mother’s Day!

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On this Mother’s Day, the Jackie Robinson Museum takes time to recognize and appreciate the hard work and dedication of mothers and mother figures across the globe, including the maternal figures who contributed to Jackie Robinson’s character: his grandmother, Edna Sims McGriff, his sister Willa Mae Walker, and his wife Rachel Robinson. But today we spotlight Jackie Robinson’s mother, Mallie Robinson, the matriarch of the Robinson family.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born to Mallie and Jerry Robinson on January 31st, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. He was the youngest of five. The family lived on a plantation owned by Jim Sasser, where Jerry and Mallie worked for monthly wages, while Mallie also raised her daughter and four sons and cared for their home. Confronting the unfairness of their earnings, Mallie strongly encouraged Jerry to ask Jim for an increase in sharecropper compensation. The request was reluctantly granted, and as Arnold Rampersad describes in Jackie Robinson: An Autobiography, “Mallie threw her energies into making sharecropping pay, and their life improved dramatically. Soon the Robinsons owned their own fat hogs, chickens, and turkeys…”

Despite this success, Jerry later abandoned the family for a married neighbor, and Mallie was evicted from the plantation. She moved her five children across the country to Pasadena, California (where her half-brother Burton Thomas lived) with the hopes of avoiding the increasingly violent racism that pervaded Georgia. Jackie was one year and four months old when the family made the journey.

In Pasadena, Mallie managed to purchase a home at 121 Pepper Street, in an all-white neighborhood. Despite the obstacles they still faced out west, Mallie instilled in Jackie an unshakeable sense of faith and dignity. When it came to racist neighbors, Mallie opted to share excess bread during times when food was scarce, creating an atmosphere of humanitarianism between her family and the families surrounding them.

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As Jackie writes in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, “My mother got up before daylight to go to her job, and although she came home tired, she managed to give us the extra attention we needed. She indoctrinated us with the importance of family unity, religion, and kindness toward others…” When the local bakery allowed the Robinsons to take leftover baked goods, Mallie insisted on sharing with the neighbors.

As Jackie’s sister Willa Mae reminisces, “My mother divided with them it was too much for just our family, so all the neighbors – even the one that was throwing rocks and fighting – they got some too. And then we got to be real friends and all in the neighborhood. They found out we were human, too; the color didn’t do anything to them.”

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Mallie’s lessons for her children were a fundamental part of their upbringing that inevitably prepared Jackie for the color barrier that he would break in 1947. In what ways might have Mallie’s parenting influenced Jackie’s ability to desegregate Major League Baseball? Which of her lessons echoed throughout Jackie’s lifetime? Jackie provides us with an answer, full of admiration and pride, that guided him to deal with the adversity he faced on the playing field:

“My mother never lost composure. She didn’t allow us to go out of our way to antagonize the whites, and she still made it perfectly clear to us and to them that she was not at all afraid of them and that she had no intention of allowing them to mistreat us. I remember, even as a small boy, having a lot of pride in my mother. I thought she must have some kind of magic to be able to do all the things she did…”

In the Jackie Robinson Museum’s exploration of Jackie Robinson’s story, we’ll take a closer look at the relationships between Jackie and his mother, siblings, and later on, his own wife and children to illuminate this facet of his rich and multi-dimensional life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the mothers and mother figures who instill the principles of courage, integrity, and compassion in our future world leaders.


What is Jackie Robinson’s Legacy?

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On this 72nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball, the Jackie Robinson Museum takes the time to consider this question.

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Jackie Robinson famously stated, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” He worked diligently to have as widespread of an impact as possible; from his baseball career, to his entrepreneurial endeavors and involvement in civil rights, Robinson was a humanitarian first and foremost. Jackie cared deeply about the innate dignity of human beings and fought to have that dignity recognized. In fact, he once said, “The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity.”

When Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field on April 15th, 1947, he and his wife Rachel knew that they were beginning a journey that was much larger than the game of baseball. They knew that the act of desegregating the sport would serve to disrupt the national conversation about race and humanity. The pair sensed that Jackie’s presence in Major League Baseball as the first African-American player of the modern era would reverberate throughout all aspects of American society.

In her book Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, Rachel Robinson writes

“In 1947, as Jack took his place in the batter’s box in Ebbets Field, and [Branch] Rickey watched from the owner’s box, the meaning of the moment for me seemed to transcend the winning of a ballgame. The possibility of social change seemed more concrete, and the need for it seemed more imperative. I believe that the single most important impact of Jack’s presence was that it enabled white baseball fans to root for a black man, thus encouraging more whites to realize that all our destinies were inextricably linked.”

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Was this “single most important impact of Jack’s presence” realized? Were the Robinsons successful in their mission of encouraging white fans to realize the interconnectedness of all people?

In late 1972, weeks after Jackie Robinson’s death, Mrs. Robinson received a condolence letter from a Ernst P. Muller (see below). In his letter, Ernst, a young white boy in Queens at the time of Jackie Robinson’s entry to the Major Leagues, reflects on the impact that rooting for Jackie in 1947 had on his constructions of race and humanity. He writes, “[Jackie] was Black + I loved him. How was I as I grew to manhood ever to learn to discriminate, to draw lines between my humanity + yours? How could I ever succumb to pressures that urged me to believe in racial inferiority? I knew Jackie Robinson + he was a man + he was all the man that I could ever hope to be.”

This letter, in its eloquence and honesty, shows precisely how Robinson incited change in the hearts and minds of the generations watching him play ball. With Robinson’s presence on the field, Ernst’s life took a dramatic turn; he was awoken to the ignorance around him and motivated to be separate from and better than it.

The Jackie Robinson Museum, in its goal to preserve and prolong Robinson’s legacy, will present a multi-faceted narrative of his story: through his life as an athlete, patriot, activist, entrepreneur, and family man. While exploring these complex pieces of Robinson’s history, the Museum will track the echoes of Robinson’s impact in our modern-day world while encouraging visitors to create similar everlasting legacies in their own communities. Download The Actual Letter From Ernst P. Muller Below HERE