“I don’t know where I was,” she said. “I fainted. I really did.”
That afternoon, Sharon Robinson’s father, Jackie, stood on those steps as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed, as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the thousands who filled the National Mall. She is 66 now, a nurse and a midwife and an educator, not a 13-year-old girl who came to Washington with her parents so their family might better understand the movement that was afoot. Thursday, she braced against the cold and reminisced.
“He wanted us to understand,” Sharon Robinson said.
She understands. Her father would have it no other way. Sharon Robinson returned to Washington in 1969, when she enrolled at Howard. She returned later, teaching at her alma mater, then at Georgetown, living for a time in Northeast. And she returned Thursday to consider the city and, more importantly, the kids in it.
It is Black History Month, an appropriate time to think back on Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. It has also annually become a time to think about African American participation in Jackie Robinson’s game. The numbers, as anyone who has been paying attention knows, are stark: In the mid-1980s, African Americans made up 19 percent of major league rosters. On Opening Day a year ago, that mark was below eight percent.
“It is important to me, and it’s important to my family, not just because of it being baseball, but because baseball’s reflective of society – which has always been the case,” Robinson said Thursday, out of the cold. “… We’re always watching out for it.
“However, I’m an educator. So I am far more worried about our kids, really, being educated. To me that’s the most important thing. I feel like everyone has to decide what their priority is, and what they want to fight for, and I want to fight for kids learning to read, graduating from high school and going off to college — or at least being employable so they can have a life based on their real achievement.”
She sipped her skim latte. This had come after she rode in the back of a minivan down Constitution Avenue, past the not-yet-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. A museum to commemorate such things? Sharon Robinson, living and breathing, is part of it.
After her father brought the family to the March on Washington, they returned home. Jackie Robinson’s contribution to the civil rights movement, from the relative isolation of Stamford, Conn., would be to host jazz concerts as fund raisers. The three Robinson children would give up their rooms so the musicians could change and practice. They sold hamburgers and hot dogs. One evening, who walked through their door but Dr. King himself.
“It was like God walked into your house,” she said.
Thursday, Robinson had lunch with Debra Cohen and Marla Tanenbaum, daughters of Ted Lerner, managing principal owner of the Washington Nationals, and a dozen or so others at the Library of Congress. There, she got to see artifacts she didn’t know existed, including a letter her father wrote to Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager who boldly selected Robinson to become the first African American player in the majors. Jackie Robinson never dated any of his personal letters, his daughter said, but this one had to be from 1950, because it was from a sympathetic Robinson, wondering how the Dodgers could be pushing Rickey out of his job when he had accomplished so much.
“I was moved,” Sharon Robinson said.
Another reminder of baseball’s threads in the fabric of American life. Nineteen years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, MLB used Sharon Robinson and her mother Rachel to celebrate the season at ballparks across the country. They threw out first pitches, smiled for photos, waved to crowds. In Seattle, a young black ballplayer waded through a sea of photographers. He asked for Sharon’s autograph.
“Who was that?” she asked Mariners personnel.
Ken Griffey Jr., she was told. She called him back for a hug.
“But the key question I asked repeatedly was, ‘Is this just about celebrations at ballparks?’” she said, riding through the streets of Washington. “I kept saying, ‘No, it can’t be.’ My parents are both activists, and my father was particularly dedicated to young people. So it needs to translate to something that impacts the community and youth.”
After lunch, she made her way down Pennsylvania Ave. SE, across the Anacostia, over to the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. Robinson knows lip service when she sees it. This facility is anything but. Her tour included a look at the indoor batting cages and the immaculate fields, sure, but the cafeteria and the classrooms too.
This is the 20th year of the Breaking Barriers Essay Contest, a program started back during that 50th anniversary season, back when Sharon Robinson approached MLB and said, “Will you help?” She began working for them then, traveling to schools to deliver a curriculum designed to help children face their obstacles, address them, overcome them. Over the years, she has had to break through her own barriers – disinterested superintendents, principals who leave the box of materials under their desks for a year at a time, only to have them discovered when Robinson pops in for a follow-up visit.
But the kids. The kids always deliver. Like last year, from Raymond Beasley V, a fifth-grader from Brentwood, Calif., whose essay began:
“Sometimes I forget about the scar on my head, but the questions about it from strangers remind me that I am a survivor. Sometimes I wish I could just blend in with the crowd instead of standing out. But I AM OUTSTANDING because I fought hard to be like most other 10-year-olds. Some people thought that a brain tumor would limit me. However, their minds changed after seeing my own courage, persistent determination, and commitment to succeed. Just as Jackie Robinson fought prejudice so that Blacks could play Major League Baseball, I have applied some of his values in my own life and am very proud to be African American, too.”
This is what Sharon Robinson’s message is. Baseball, sure. But not just baseball. Thursday afternoon, she walked down a hall, not even stopping to notice the photo of her father with a bat in his hand or the painting of him sliding across the plate. She stepped into a classroom filled with rows of chairs, each of them holding a child, each with a pen, each with paper. Her own story is filled with some of the most memorable moments and characters from the past six decades of American history. She wanted them to write theirs.