The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students ask George Washington U. not to eliminate a project honoring Jackie Robinson’s legacy

Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers' first baseman, is shown at Ebbets Field on April 11, 1947. (AP) (AP)

More than 20 years ago, a professor at George Washington University interested in the interplay between sports, race and culture started a project to share the story of Jackie Robinson’s legacy.

It was 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the moment when he integrated Major League Baseball. Richard Zamoff, an adjunct associate professor of sociology at GWU, launched the Jackie Robinson Project with seed money from a local nonprofit, and has run it ever since with volunteers and private donations, sharing Robinson’s story in classrooms, at academic conferences, with community groups.

But now, GWU officials plan to end the project, asking Zamoff to design a program to mark the 100th anniversary of Robinson’s birth in 2019 and then shut it down. The funds that were donated, to an account in the sociology department’s budget, have been frozen since late summer.

The decision sparked an outcry from students, donors and teachers who testify to the impact of the project.

The Jackie and Rachel Robinson Society, a student group associated with the project, launched a petition that has been signed by 499 people and that urges administrators to allow the project to continue.

Zamoff said about $15,000 remains in the account, enough to run the program for another three years without further donations. “It’s absolutely frustrating and mystifying,” Zamoff said.

Kimberly Gross, interim associate dean for programs and operations for GWU’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said in a written response the university appreciates the groundbreaking role that Jackie Robinson played on and off the field, and the impact of race on sports and American culture. GWU has several initiatives dedicated to the legacy of Jackie Robinson, she said, including an academic course, a student organization and an outreach project. The course and the student organization will continue.

The university decided to end the outreach project because of concerns about its management and funding, Gross wrote. The program director had been asked to submit a budget plan incorporating a celebration of Jackie Robinson’s legacy on the GWU campus and educational outreach to schools, she said, but has not done so.

At the end of the academic year, Gross said, any remaining funds "will be reallocated in a way that continues to honor the Jackie Robinson legacy, such as dedicating the funding to the Africana Studies Program or to the Jackie and Rachel Robinson Society student organization.”

Zamoff said he told Gross he would not submit a budget plan for any activity unless he were guaranteed in writing that by doing do "there is absolutely no assumption whatsoever that we agree to phasing out the Jackie Robinson Project at any time as long as money remains in the Jackie Robinson Project Fund and donations have been pledged to the Project."

Justyn Needel became an officer of the Jackie and Rachel Robinson Society student group because Zamoff’s class challenged her to think differently about race and the way she lives her life, she said, inspired by Robinson’s contributions. Many people never learn of all the things he did off the baseball field and how much that affected society, she said.

“I don’t even understand why we have to make a petition,” Needel said. “We’re not asking them for money . . . All we’re trying to do is help the community spread the positivity of Jackie Robinson’s message, and GWU is taking that away from the students and the people.”

Angelo Parodi, who teaches fifth grade at John Eaton Elementary School in Washington and has hosted visits from the Jackie Robinson Project to his classroom for a decade, echoed those concerns. When children hear about what Robinson did off the baseball field — how he helped found a bank in Harlem and a construction company to build housing for low-income families — their eyes widen, and their understanding of the complexity of the civil rights movement deepen. “I see it in their writing,” he said. “I see it in the discussions we have in the classroom.”