Inside the Jackie Robinson Museum, the ‘passion project’ that’s about more than a sports legacy
The museum in New York City’s SoHo district tells not just the story of the Dodgers’ legend on the field, but ‘the depth of his civic engagement’
NEW YORK — On the second floor at 75 Varick St. in SoHo, there’s a statue. It’s not on the main floor of the newly minted Jackie Robinson Museum, it’s upstairs away from the hubbub of children and interactivity that is the main floor. Just across from a photomosaic portrait of Jack Roosevelt Robinson and down the hall from a slew of other paintings of the man, it sits alone at the top of the staircase.
It’s a replica of him from his football days at UCLA, a gift given from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to the foundation responsible for the museum of the man of the same name. It’s also an apt metaphor for why the facility exists at all. When it comes to Robinson, there’s just so much story to tell. And sports are only a small part.
“That’s our biggest challenge,” said Della Britton, CEO and president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. “You’ve got all this stuff. So what stays? What goes? What’s the theme?”
It’s the challenge of putting together a space to honor a man so revered, so celebrated, and in many ways, so pigeonholed. The answer was simple: Separate sports from everything else.
“You start with learning all you can, you start with a group of people, you start with people who do have the passion,” Britton said. “I think it’s a passion project. Somebody who wants to know all they can. I mean, I read 32 books probably twice, at least twice, three times. So when you ingest all this, you say, OK, so what stuck out with you.”
As far as footprint, the exhibit is modest but mighty. Even if for whatever reason you had some sort of issue with Robinson, the museum itself is tremendous. It doesn’t feel like an overly slurpy hagiography that Major League Baseball is using to prop itself up as some sort of bastion of integration (it’s not) — it feels like a family collection, which it is.
In 1973, Robinson’s wife Rachel started the Jackie Robinson Foundation. At first, it was a scholarship fund designed to make an impact based on the family’s core values. Now, it’s grown to a full-bodied mentorship program, along with the museum. Rachel Robinson, who was recognized at the MLB All-Star Game in Los Angeles this month on her 100th birthday, cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony this week.
She wants the world to know the man she married, not just the man people watched play.
“It wasn’t just some pipe dream that she wanted,” Britton said. “The concept was to make sure there was a place where people could come and learn about Jackie, not just a statue, not just a bench in a park with his name on it, not just a day that we celebrated him, but where we could really learn about the depth of his involvement, the depth of his civic engagement.”
This week, former foundation scholars were part of the team who welcomed guests and kids groups to see the fabulous nearly 20,000-square-foot facility. As far as the more than 4,500 artifacts, it’s got everything you’d want. His World Series ring, his U.S. Army service record booklet, his handwritten notes from his speech at the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1970, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and even covers from Ebony and Sepia magazines with him and his family.
But the impact the foundation has made on the human beings it’s helped is remarkable. Danielle Clayton is a foundation alum, and one of the few actually from New York. The national program has thousands of students each year who vie for a four-year college scholarship after applying.
“It’s integrity, determination, service. And I just remember being like, Jackie Robinson embodied a great amount of integrity and I wanted to be a part of a foundation that was not only interested in serving Black students, but that had integrity at its core,” Clayton, who isn’t even really a baseball fan, pointed out. “It was really humbling to realize you’re a part of this big thing. And I think the appeal for me was just being tied to such an illustrious legacy of … the first Black man to integrate Major League Baseball. And that’s such a big thing, but I think the beauty of the foundation is that we began to learn about him outside of being an athlete. All of the contributions he made off the field and the importance of service, not only to him, but to his family, to his wife.”
It’s hard to describe how pure the museum feels. So much of Robinson’s legacy is tied up in MLB, or for that matter UCLA, which doesn’t even begin to really explain what he was trying to do. When he saw economic injustice, he did what he could to fight it from the ground up. Shortcuts were not a part of it. He did his best to help Black businesses fight unfair lending practices. When put in a position to make a political decision, he picked Richard Nixon for president because that guy at least looked him in the eyes, unlike John F. Kennedy. And when he made mistakes, he owned them.
The museum isn’t a story of a guy who bailed out Major League Baseball’s racist past and present. It’s the life story of the son of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, who grew up to meet a brilliant woman and fight for Black people all over the country. MLB itself could never do this man’s life justice in this way.
“The point [for Jackie] was to show what we can do. The point was, there’s a quote in a museum that says, ‘Maybe we should spend our money at places that have embraced the fact that we are full-class citizens like everybody else. Indeed should be first-class citizens or have the opportunity to like everybody else,’ ” Britton noted, holding one of the blue and gold (UCLA colors) balloon animals that were given to the kids that day. “And so, the symbol of saying we can build our own stores. We can patronize our own stores. We can. I mean he really touched so many different surfaces. And so Rachel wanted that whole story told. She said, ‘I want people to know what was in his heart. What he was really like.’ ”
Robinson died long before this columnist was born, and certainly long before many of the students his foundation has helped. But his legacy is one that resonates still with young people, even though Robinson was done playing long before color TV was a regular thing in the United States.
One of those people is Sidney Carlson White, a curatorial assistant at the Jackie Robinson Museum. Part of his job is to compile and write notes for the various displays and interactive exhibits. As a Black kid who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, he’s been a Robinson fan since he was 7 years old.
“I would consider myself a big Jackie fan because I’d always been interested in civil rights, political history and sports, but also, I really loved baseball,” White explained. “I loved baseball from a very young age. And I think naturally, when you’re a Black guy that likes baseball and is growing up with the intricacies of the game, [you are] raised with these stories of the very difficult, the painful fight for integration in baseball from a very young age.”
A kid from Minnesota’s whole professional life now revolves around a guy who died decades before he was even on earth?
Trauma can be generational, but so can achievement and hope.
“One of the things that’s really left with me, even from a very early age, is the understanding that the history of sports is American history,” White said. “And willingly or not, Black people have always been at the center of it. And I think telling that type of story is why I like this space so much.”
He takes particular pride in the response the exhibits have gotten from young people, who are the primary target audience for the museum. This isn’t a place for the old fogeys looking to show up and wax poetic, it’s a place to learn. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t nostalgia.
In the sports wing of the museum, you get a lot. Robinson’s prolific trophy case, his uniforms from the Negro and International leagues, and even fun stuff like old trinkets and scorecards from his days when the Dodgers were at Ebbets Field. Which coincidentally, happens to be the subject of the most impressive thing in the museum.
“This is a fully bespoke installation that is a scale model of Ebbets Field that is manufactured basically to the very exact specifications of the stadium that once stood in Flatbush,” White said casually, as if we’re not looking at the coolest thing in a museum even remotely related to baseball I’ve ever seen. “It’s called Game Day, and features, of course, these three screens in the back, as well as, if you look over, an actual image of what the field looked like and silhouettes of players walking across it. It is an absolutely remarkable piece of engineering because it really is supposed to match up exactly with the stadium, like the famous Abe Stark sign, ‘Hit it here, win a suit,’ is featured there. But the best part is that it is a real multimedia experience. If we step over here, I’ll start one of these.”
He presses a button, and suddenly the screens come to life, complete with an old-timey voiceover to make you feel like you were in Brooklyn in the ’40s.
“It really shows how this location was a real community institution. One of the things that I talk about with people who are Dodgers fans, especially folks who are not from LA, a lot of people who are Dodgers fans are Dodgers fans because they believe in this history of Ebbets Field and Brooklyn being these community institutions, part of civil society. And that’s one of the things that we wanted to get across here,” White pointed out. “The Brooklyn Dodgers were this important community institution that was, quite awfully, taken away and moved to LA. And I think that getting that across is really important to show that Brooklyn, this diverse, bustling place in the 1940s and ’50s, was the location where the fight for integration would happen.”
The community that now still celebrates Robinson’s legacy showed up Wednesday night to see a screening of After Jackie, a documentary film about the years after he retired that chronicles the struggles of Bill White, Curt Flood and Bob Gibson playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The film takes a look at how Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier didn’t exactly make things better for everyone all of a sudden. The marathon continued. Flood, whom many consider the godfather of free agency in sports for fighting MLB’s reserve clause, specifically points out who was in his corner.
“When Curt Flood talked about [Jackie], he said, he’s the one that inspired me to go forward to do so. In fact, not only to take the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, but then on the day of the argument, you may recall that two people came to that argument. Jackie Robinson. And of course Hank Greenberg, the ballplayer,” Britton offered as a reminder. “It was always [Robinson’s] mission to do whatever he could to help his people.”
The event was attended by a few former ballplayers, a couple of celebrities and plenty of fans. It was important enough that Roland Martin, the longtime political journalist from Houston who now runs his own shop after years on CNN and TV One, decided to show up and do a whole show from the screening.
“So it’s interesting watching this documentary. They talked about what Wendell Smith did in his writing, what Sam Lacy did. Actually, that was the power of Black-owned media, Black press,” Martin explained, noting the importance of not just Robinson, but everyone who made this thing go.
“For me, as a student, I spent all my time in Black-owned media; it’s carrying that forth. This is how I look at it: If we were not here tonight covering this, who would know about this conversation?”
Anyone who walks through the door, will now.