WESTFIELD, NJ – Students at Roosevelt Intermediate School learned firsthand about African-American history when Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, spoke about her father’s life during the school’s seventh annual Black History assembly Friday morning.
Students and faculty were also treated to a moving performance by the Newark Boys Chorus who, under the direction of Donald Morris, sang a variety of contemporary, traditional Gospel and spirituals pieces.
“Every year, we are blessed to have them perform at our assembly,” said Pam Friedman, a computer teacher at Roosevelt who organized the assembly, at the start of the program.
February is Black History Month.
In introducing Robinson, Friedman called her father a “trailblazer in the world of sports” for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
“Although it was very hard for him, he persevered,” Friedman said.
Robinson, who has worked as a nurse midwife and author and currently serves as an educational consultant for MLB’s Breaking Barriers, began by telling the audience that she was pleased to be visiting Roosevelt, where the child of a friend and colleague is a student.
She spoke about her father’s strength of character and his determination to affect the lives of others.
“He was always a very humble man,” Robinson said of her father.
Using old photos of Jackie Robinson in a slide presentation, she illustrated how her father began his life as the youngest child of sharecroppers in rural Georgia. After Jackie’s father died, his mother moved the family to California to escape the brutal racism of the South.
Jackie’s athletic ability was discovered when he was a young child tagging along with his older sister to school while their mother worked. Other students wanted him to play on their teams at recess.
Jackie Robinson was also a pioneer at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was the school’s first four letterman. When he was in the Army after graduation, he refused to give up his seat to a white person on a military bus. He defended his name in court and was honorably discharged.
After leaving the Army, he played for the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs baseball team. He was scouted by MLB executive Branch Rickey in 1945 and played first for the Dodgers’ minor league team, the Montreal Royals. As the league's first black player, Robinson had to agree to Rickey’s request that he not to fight back to any verbal assaults from spectators.
“At this point in history, in 1945, a black man and a white man did not sit down together to negotiate a business deal,” Sharon Robinson told the audience.
She also praised Rickey for his innovation in baseball at that time.
“He was being his own kind of pioneer,” she said of Rickey.
Robinson married college sweetheart Rachel and the couple had three children.
Jackie Robinson was able to see two more African American players, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, join the team before retiring after 10 years with the Dodgers.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He asked that he be judged solely on his achievements in baseball.
After leaving baseball, Jackie Robinson became a vice-president and director of personnel at coffee company Chock Full O’Nuts. He also began a personal mission to support the growing civil rights movement. He and Rachel hosted jazz concerts at their Connecticut home to raise money for jailed civil rights workers. Robinson took his children to attend Dr. Martin Luther King’s famed March on Washington in 1963.
“My father’s post-baseball career was relatively short but very powerful,” Sharon Robinson said.
In addition, Jackie Robinson founded Freedom National Bank in Harlem to help residents gain access to capital. He died in 1972 at age 53 after suffering a heart attack in his home.
In closing, Sharon Robinson, who is also the chairperson of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, encouraged Roosevelt students in “thinking beyond yourself” and finding their own voices in order to help others.
The Newark Boys Chorus, which has performed for Nelson Mandela in South Africa and for the Pope in Rome, included in their program “Hope for Resolution,” which pays tribute to the reconciliation between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, and “I, Too, Sing America,” a Langston Hughes poem set to music. They were joined at the end of the program by Roosevelt choral group, Sharps and Flats.
Morris, director of the chorus, said the 33-member choir would stay for lunch at Roosevelt.
“They look forward to this every year,” Morris said.