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At 100, Rachel Robinson is still looking toward tomorrow with the Jackie Robinson Museum

The long-awaited opening is the continuation of not only keeping her husband’s legacy alive, but her determination and ferocity

On Tuesday, close friends and family will gather at a Manhattan apartment to celebrate a monumental American milestone: the 100th birthday of Rachel Isum Robinson.

Another milestone will take place seven days later on July 26: the long-awaited opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum in lower Manhattan.

I suspect Rachel Robinson would say the museum opening is more significant. Living for a century, as she has, is a remarkable achievement, though I often think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech when he referred to longevity.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place.”

The idea is that it’s not how long we live that matters. What matters is what we accomplish during our lifetime. Jackie Robinson was just 53 years old when he died in October 1972. His wife pledged her life to keeping his legacy alive.

Thanks to her, the principles of Jackie Robinson’s life continue to resonate and will now be memorialized in a new museum.

Robinson epitomizes grace, courage, strength, determination and resilience. She not only became the backbone of her family but a significant part of the backbone of this nation through the life she led. The museum is the crowning achievement of a life filled with colossal achievements.

“I can tell you, there would be no museum without Rachel,” Len Coleman told me last week. “She was insistent that she wanted this museum.”

Rachel Robinson (center) and her children, Sharon Robinson (left) and David Robinson (right), enter the field during a game between the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers in 2019.

Rob Leiter/MLB via Getty Images

Coleman will be among the small group of guests at Tuesday’s birthday celebration. A former National League president, Coleman served as chairman of the board of directors for the Jackie Robinson Foundation for 18 years. He is a trusted adviser, a family friend and someone who witnessed the force and ferocity of Robinson’s commitment to making the museum a reality.

She began thinking about creating a museum 18 years ago — though for years before, she had been thinking of how to preserve the mountains of archives and make them available for public consumption.

“Rachel’s determination is as strong as Jack’s. When she gets something in her mind and she thinks it’s right, you’ve never met a more determined person. Basically, this museum is coming because this was her vision, totally her vision.”

— Len Coleman

In 2004, she introduced her idea of the Jackie Robinson Museum to her board. Coleman remembered that some board members pushed back. The foundation had developed a reputation for giving scholarships.

“Some people said that we should just stick with scholarships and that it was going to be too difficult to raise the money,” Coleman recalled. “But when you think about it, there’s not a civil rights museum in New York. Also, the idea was not to just be showing Jack’s glove and bats and all that, but this was to be an interactive museum where people could come and discuss issues of social justice and make it a living and ongoing discussion. We would bring in schoolchildren, host forums and discuss significant issues of the day. That’s the way she viewed it.”

And that’s the way it would be.

Her 18-year push to establish the museum revealed a side of Robinson that only those close to her ever saw: a ferocious, unshakable determination.

The economic collapse of 2008 stalled an ambitious fundraising campaign necessary for a 2009 opening. Over the next 12 years, she led a fundraising initiative that would raise $35 million. That was enough to open the museum.

“Rachel’s determination is as strong as Jack’s,” Coleman said. “When she gets something in her mind and she thinks it’s right, you’ve never met a more determined person. Basically, this museum is coming because this was her vision, totally her vision.”

In 1973, Rachel established the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission was to provide college scholarships and leadership training. Her focus, almost an obsession, was nurturing young people, providing them with a vision of possibility. She learned at an early age how one role model could help change the course of a life. Robinson once shared with Coleman that Marian Anderson, the great contralto, helped change her view of herself as a young Black woman.

She was a young girl growing up in Los Angeles when her mother took her to see Anderson in concert. What she recalled was the majesty of this Black woman, coming onstage with her white accompanist, the flowing white gown. Her presence, her confidence, her sense of command were mesmerizing.

“She said she walked to center stage with this flowing gown, the place just went silent,” Coleman recalled Robinson saying. “You could hear a pin drop. She said all eyes were fixated on Marian Anderson. She was in complete control. All she had to do was nod at the pianist for him to hit the first note. Rachel said that left an indelible impression upon her about how this woman had such presence and control.”

Rachel Robinson (bottom right) and her family have remained involved with the Brooklyn Dodgers franchise and Major League Baseball decades after the death of her husband, Jackie Robinson.

Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images

Long before she met Jackie Robinson, the pioneering spirit was in her, embedded in her bones. She was a teenager in 1939 when Anderson, prohibited from singing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 and a radio audience of millions. Anderson became a key figure in the struggle for civil rights.

Eight years after that concert, Robinson became part of U.S. history when her husband desegregated the MLB as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The strength and courage with which they faced hateful resistance will be the cornerstone of the Jackie Robinson Museum.

What’s important is not simply that Jackie and Rachel Robinson persevered. The important message — the timeless message — is how they persevered, how they overcame.

“Jack treated me like a partner and wanted me involved,” Rachel once told me. “He wasn’t overly dependent on me. There was a kind of mutual dependency there. And so that made it easier to be a part of things and it’s what drew me in.”

I have spoken with her on several occasions. Each interaction — whether an interview or a casual conversation — became a learning experience, a history lesson, a lesson in graciousness, a lesson in diplomacy, and mostly a lesson in winning battles; allies come in all sizes, shapes and colors.

One conversation that stands out was a lengthy formal interview on Jan. 22, 2009, in her office at the foundation. The date is significant because the conversation took place two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as the first Black president in United States history.

The primary topic was the planned opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum, which at the time she hoped would take place within the year. Around that time, she announced that she would focus all her energy on the museum.

The philosophical underpinning of the museum would be her husband’s often quoted statement: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

The museum was designed to be interactive, not merely historical. There would be a small theater where invited speakers would speak and conversations facilitated. There would be a room for parties and celebrations.

“The idea is to keep people engaged in the material,” Robinson said at the time. “It’s not just the kind of thing where you come and look around and go home and forget it. I hope not. I want it to have some impact.”

Boston Red Sox players wear jerseys with Jackie Robinson’s retired No. 42 during introductions of the starting lineups before the 2022 Opening Day game against the Minnesota Twins on April 15.

Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

During our conversation, Rachel Robinson spoke earnestly about the importance of the museum being relevant. Not focused so much on looking back but on inspiring young people to think about the importance of giving one’s life meaning and purpose, on demonstrating how one person could bring about change, how an individual could make a difference, how people can make a difference.

“If they only wanted to ask, ‘What am I doing in my family?’ I would be pleased,” she said. “Or, ‘What am I doing in my neighborhood? What am I doing in my community at large?’ And begin to think of themselves as active participants in history. They can use that as a part of their own development because they’ll be better people, they’ll be stronger, they’ll be wiser. They’ll be committed to things that go beyond their own needs.”

Eventually, our conversation shifted from the museum to politics, specifically about the significance of the United States having its first Black president. This was yet another historic tipping point, but would it be enduring?

She thought Obama’s election would help create momentum for the museum and help restore hope among African Americans.

“It enhances what we’re doing,” she said. “It brings attention to it in a way we probably wouldn’t have before. And it creates an interest in history, a way of identifying for people who haven’t been able to identify before. There’s a lot of positives in it. And mostly, the feeling of hope I think for me, it’s so critical because we’ve been through a period of a kind of hopelessness of, ‘Is it ever going to happen?’ I mean, we’re losing our ground everywhere. Internationally. And so, the rebuilding is important and massive. But I think it’s possible. It’s doable now.”

I thought about everything that Robinson, born in 1922, had witnessed and endured during her life as an African American, as a woman, as an African American woman.

She lived in a generation when African Americans were forced to make accommodations and be content with micro victories. She told the story of a trip from Los Angeles to Daytona Beach, Florida, when Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals. She was born and raised in Los Angeles and had never traveled to the South, never been exposed to the degradation and humiliation forced on African Americans who lived there.

On two occasions, they were bumped from flights and forced to use separate Colored Only accommodations.

“I’d never been South,” she told me. “I won’t say that there wasn’t discrimination — racism — in California. There was. But it was very subtle, it wasn’t legislated. I’d never seen the signs, and nobody ever said to me, ‘You can’t sit there, you have to go there.’ ”

It was on this trip that her sense of defiance surfaced.

“I went into the white ladies’ room just to restore my own dignity,” she recalled. “I looked at those white ladies and did whatever I had to do and got out of there. I felt better, but it was a minor rebellion.”

Racism followed her to the ballpark. “There was one place in the South during spring training where I stopped going because I was so furious about the way they treated the Black fans, West Palm Beach, they had segregated stands,” she said.

“But more than that, they wouldn’t let them come through the turnstile. They had to come through a hole in the fence. And then they had to sit in the outfield when there was an overflow and be treated like cattle. I stopped going and I would go in the car and sit in the parking lot and listen to the game on the radio and wait for Jack to come out.”

Jackie (left) and Rachel Robinson (right) attend a sports banquet at Howard University in 1960.

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Throughout her life, Robinson has heard the refrain that those days are gone and it’s time to move on. The nail may be gone but for those who suffered the slights and humiliation, the hole remains.

The essence of Robinson’s life is how she has allowed the hole to heal, how she has moved on and persevered and forced a nation to be better.

“She’s got a phrase that she often uses even when things are down,” Coleman said. “She always says, ‘Upward and onward.’ I think that has symbolized her life.”

Rachel and Jackie had three children: Jackie Jr., Sharon and David. Jackie Jr. died tragically in 1971 in a car accident; Sharon, 72, has written several books and worked with the MLB on its Jackie Robinson initiatives. The youngest, David, 70, has lived much of his life in Tanzania, where he has built a coffee business, Sweet Unity Farms Coffee. For David Robinson, the opening of the museum encapsulates the conviction that defines his mother’s, and by
extension, his father’s life.

“This is just part of the determination of her life,” David Robinson said by phone on Saturday. “She spent a good portion of the last 15 years trying to make this happen, inspiring a whole team of people. And not just the determination to get something done in a lifetime, but the determination to impact future generations by building a museum, which is all about future generations, giving them some knowledge so that we might have a multigenerational movement.”

He added: “How can you remember the past without representation of the past? You can do it in books, you can do it in movies, but the great moments in history can also have the good fortune to be captured in a museum.”

When we spoke that day in 2009, Robinson lamented that her husband had not lived to see Obama’s election. She said that near the end of his life, he had become discouraged. “Discouraged that change would not take place, that it would not be permanent, that it would not be expansive.” Living to see Obama elected, she believed, “would have conquered all of those thoughts.”

I’m not sure in January 2009 that either of us considered that the election of Obama would lead to a largely white backlash that led to the election of Donald Trump, to the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court and, indirectly, to a mob attempt to overrun the Capitol and overturn the election.

She has lived long enough to see that, just as night turns to day, history ebbs and flows. Four years of Trump led to a new administration and the election of the first Black woman as vice president of the United States.

Robinson has been blessed with the opportunity to witness 100 years’ worth of history. She has used her time wisely. The chapters she has written are lessons in persistence and vigilance — reminders not only of what it takes to achieve freedom but what it takes to preserve freedom.

Perhaps her most satisfying chapter will be unveiled on July 26 when the Jackie Robinson Museum opens.

“The idea is to keep people engaged in the material. It’s not just the kind of thing where you come and look around and go home and forget it. I hope not. I want it to have some impact.”

— Rachel Robinson

Before I left that afternoon, I asked Robinson about what that first night in Florida was like. After the cross-country journey from Los Angeles, being bumped from flights and the restroom incident, what was it like to finally spend the night together after a harrowing journey on the way to making history?

Her answer was instructive.

“We didn’t review the trauma of where we had to stay and how we had to behave, but what we had to do was get ready for tomorrow,” she said. “And we knew you had to get ready for tomorrow and you couldn’t carry all that mess into the next day.”

Preparing for tomorrow. That is the meaning of Robinson’s legacy as wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. As a living witness to history.

She is a reminder that rights may be won but their permanence is only guaranteed by vigilance. Keeping the faith is crucial.

As she likes to say: “Onward and upward.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.