With Wife Rachel’s Guiding Hand, Jackie Robinson Museum Opens
After a 14-year delay, the Jackie Robinson Museum will open to the public in New York on September 5. For baseball fans, the 20,000 square foot museum will offer interactive exhibits including one of Ebbets Field, 4,500 rare artifacts, and other displays that evoke Robinson’s baseball and civil rights activist experiences. The Jackie Robinson Foundation, founded in 1975 by Jackie’s wife Rachel, will oversee the museum.
Every year, Jackie’s heroic tale is told nationwide in classrooms, and he’s had schools, parkways, streets and apartment houses named in his honor. While Jackie’s story as Major League Baseball’s first black player is well known even to non-fans, Rachel’s biography is equally compelling and inspiring. Her life serves as a universal example for young women who want to succeed.
On July 19, 2022, Rachel Annetta Isum Robinson celebrated her 100th birthday; she was only 50 when Jackie died from a heart attack brought on by acute diabetes. Writing in the Society for American Baseball Research, journalist Ralph Carhart told of Rachel’s early upbringing in Los Angeles. Her mother Zellee took Rachel to violin lessons, museums and the Exposition Park Rose Garden. Rachel attended the acclaimed Manual Arts High School, which included among its notable alumni three-time Oscar winner Frank Capra and California Governor Goodwin Knight. Zellee and her husband Charles provided Rachel with opportunities that paved her way to accomplishment.
Rachel enrolled in UCLA where she met Jackie. Sparks didn’t fly! Rachel thought the popular Bruins football star was “cocky, conceited and self-centered.” Eventually, however, Rachel’s opinion softened, and on their first formal date, Jack took her to the Bruins football homecoming dinner, an affair at the exclusive Biltmore Hotel. While Jack was serving in the U.S. Army, Rachel studied at the U.C. San Francisco School of Nursing, and worked eight-hour shifts in hospital wards. After graduating and earning the Florence Nightingale Award for excellence in nursing, Rachel and Jack married in Los Angeles in 1946, and the couple had Jackie, Jr. in November. Two other children followed, Sharon in 1950, and David in 1952.
Rachel later earned an M.S. degree in psychiatric nursing from New York University, became a Yale University Assistant Professor of nursing, a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and directed the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
On April 15, 1947, Rachel was at Ebbets Field with Jackie, Jr., to watch her husband make history. Rachel later commented on how much Jack’s elevation from the Triple-A Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers meant to “Black America, and how much we symbolized its hunger for opportunity and its determination to make dreams long deferred possible.”
After Jack died at age 52 in 1972, Rachel immediately took over as the protector of her husband’s legacy. Within weeks of his death, Rachel resigned from Yale and managed Jack’s various financial interests. One of Jackie’s dreams was to start a construction company that built affordable housing for underserved families. Although Rachel didn’t have adequate funding to pursue that project, she founded the Jack Robinson Development Corporation. Working with the Halpern Building Corporation, the JRDC built and managed more than 1,300 units of low- and moderate-income housing in New York City and Yonkers. Rachel supervised the property managers’ training.
Since the Jackie Robinson Foundation’s inception nearly half a century ago, Rachel has received 12 honorary doctorates, including one from her alma mater, New York University. Her first alma mater presented her with the UCLA Medal in 2009, the university’s highest honor. In 2017, Rachel was given the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, presented every three years to a person who enhances baseball’s positive image in society.
In 2020, Rachel and daughter Sharon moved to Delray Beach, Fla. where she’ll continue to provide a guiding hand to the museum curators and to promote Jackie’s legacy to all who visit, old fans and new.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writer Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.