My grandfather was born into slavery, and although my mother and my father, Mallie and Jerry Robinson, lived during an era when physical slavery had been abolished, they also lived in a newer, more sophisticated kind of slavery than the kind Mr. Lincoln struck down. My parents were married in 1909, and my father worked on a plantation for twelve dollars a month.
My mother encouraged him to confront his boss and ask for a better deal. Since he didn't want to lose him, the boss agreed to let my father become a "half-cropper." That means that, instead of working for a flat sum, he would get half the profits from whatever he produced from the earth. My father began to make more money and to provide a better living for his family -- my mother and five children. Six months after I was born in 1919, my father told my mother he was going to visit his brother in Texas. I learned as a grown man he had been complaining thathe was tired of farming and he had been spending an increasing amount of time in Cairo, the city closest to the plantation. My mother was afraid that my father would not come back, and her fears were justified. Later she learned that he had left home and gone away with a neighbor's wife.
To this day I have no idea what became of my father. Later, when I became aware of how much my mother had to endure alone, I could only think of him with bitterness. He, too, may have been a victim of oppression, but he had no right to desert my mother and five children.A
fter my father left, my mother had the choice of going home to live with her people or trying to pacify the irate plantation owner. He had never forgiven her for forcing my father to ask for more money, and he felt that she had somehow had a hand in my father's leaving the plantation. When she refused to admit this, he ordered her off the land. She decided then that she would sell what little she had and take her family out of the South. She had a brother, Burton, in California, and she planned to take us there.
My mother was thirty when we started out for California. I remember nothing about it, since I was only sixteen months old at the time. I was the youngest child and had three brothers --Edgar, eleven; Frank, nine; Mack, seven -- and one sister, Willa Mae, five.
As I grew older, I often thought about the courage it took for my mother to break away from the South. Even though there appeared to be little future for us in the West, my mother knew that there she could be assured of the basic necessities. When she left the South, she also left most of her relatives and friends. She knew that her brother in California would help all he could, but he, too, had heavy responsibilities.
After a long, tedious train ride across the country, we were generously received by Uncle Burton. He took us in, but my mother made arrangements to move soon after we arrivedbecause we were too crowded. Almost immediately, she found a job washing and ironing. She didn't make enough, however, to support herself and five children and she went to welfare for relief. Her salary, plus the help from welfare, barely enabled her to make ends meet. Sometimes there were only two meals a day, and some days we wouldn't have eaten at all if it hadn't been for the leftovers my mother was able to bring home from her job.
There was other times when we subsisted on bread and sweet water. My mother got up before daylight to go to her job, and although she came home tired, she managed to give us the extra attention we needed. She indoctrinated us with the importance of family unity, religion, and kindness toward others. Her great dream for us was that we go to school.
While my mother was at work, my sister Willa Mae took care of me. I went to school with Willa Mae, but I was too young to be enrolled in the school and my mother asked the teacher to allow Willa Mae to leave me in the sandbox in the yard while classes were going on. Every morning Willa Mae put me into the sandbox, where I played until lunchtime, when school was dismissed. If it rained, I was taken into the kindergarten rooms.
Everyone was very nice to me; however, I certainly was happy when, after a year of living in the sandbox, I became old enough to go to school.
I have few early school memories after graduating from the sandbox, but I do remember being aware of the constant protective attitude of my sister. She was dedicated on my behalf.
We lived in a house on Pepper Street in Pasadena. I must have been about eight years old the first time I ran into racial trouble. I was sweeping our sidewalk when a little neighbor girl shouted at me, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." I was old enough to know how to answer that. I had learned from my older brother that, in the South, the most insulting name you can call a white person is "cracker." That is what I called her, and her father stormed out of the house to confront me. I don't remember who threw the first stone, but the father and Ihad a pretty good stone-throwing fight going until the girl's mother came out and made him go back into the house. That incident was part of a pattern. Our white neighbors had done unfriendly things before, such as summoning the police and complaining that my brother Edgar made too much noise on their sidewalks with his skates. They had signed petitions to try to get rid of us. My mother never lost her composure. She didn't allow us to go out of our way to antagonize the whites, and she still made it perfectly clear to us and to them that she was not at all afraid of them and that she had no intention of allowing them to mistreat us.
I remember, even as a small boy, having a lot of pride in my mother. I thought she must have some kind of magic to be able to do all the things she did, to work so hard and never complain and to make us all feel happy. We had our family squabbles and spats, but we were a well-knit unit. My pride in my mother was tempered with a sense of sadness that she had to bear most of our burdens. At a very early age I began to want to relieve her in any small way I could. I was happy whenever I had money to give her.
Along with a number of other children in the neighborhood, I had a lot of free time, and a lot of freedom. Some of it I put to good use -- I had a paper route, I cut grass and ran errands when I could. The rest of the time, I stole -- all sorts of small things from stores, particularly food -- and I was a member in good standing of the Pepper Street gang. Our gang was made up of blacks, Japanese, and Mexican kids; all of us came from poor families and had extra time on our hands. We never got into vicious or violent crime, but hardly a week went by when we didn't have to report to Captain Morgan, the policeman who was head of the Youth Division. We threw dirt clods at cars; we hid out on the local golf course and snatched any balls that came our way and often sold them back to their recent owners; we swiped fruit from stands and ran off in a pack; we snitched what we could from the local stores; and all the time we were aware of a growing resentment at being deprived of some of the advantages the white kids had. We were allowed to swim in the local municipal pool only on Tuesdays, and once we were escorted to jail at gunpoint by the sheriff because we had gone for a swim in the reservoir.
I suppose I might have become a full-fledged juvenile delinquent if it had not been for the influence of two men who shared my mother's thinking. Carl Anderson was a mechanic who worked on automobiles in a shop close to where a lot of Pepper Street gang activities took place. After he had watched us for a while, he took me aside and talked to me about the gang.
He didn't scold me, and he approached the subject from a point of view I couldn't ignore. He made me see that if I continued with the gang it would hurt my mother as well as myself. He told me I ought to admit to myself that I didn't belong in a gang, that I was simply following the crowd because I was afraid of being thought different, of being "chicken." He said it didn't take guts to follow the crowd, that courage and intelligence lay in being willing to be different. I was too ashamed to tell Carl how right he was, but what he said got to me.
The other man who influenced me powerfully and helped me disassociate myself from the gang was the Reverend Karl Downs. He was a young minister who came to Pasadena to pastor the church where our family worshiped. My mother had made it a point to see that we got to church and Sunday School, and when Reverend Downs came along, participation in church life became a pleasure instead of a duty. Reverend Downs was both stubborn and courageous. He believed in setting up programs and sticking to them, regardless of criticism. After he had been pastor for a short time, he concluded that our churchneeded some radical changes. The young people were part of the church life only because their parents insisted that they participate, and their relationship with the church was not a strong one. Reverend Downs set out to win the young members of the congregation who had become church dropouts and reached out to recruit some who had never attended our church or perhaps any church. Those of us who had been indifferent church members began to feel an excitement in belonging. We started planning dances at the church and playing on the new badminton court that the new minister had installed. Many of the youngsters who began coming were finding the church an alternative to hanging out on street corners.
Despite the good it did, elder members objected to Reverend Downs' program. They felt tradition should be maintained. But their disapproval carried little weight because the new focus of the church was so obviously good for the youngsters, and since it attracted new parents and families, finances began to improve. It wasn't long before the new income started to make it possible for the church to operate on a sound basis. Finally, a majority of the congregation began to have a sense of pride in their pastor.
Karl Downs had the ability to communicate with you spiritually, and at the same time he was fun to be with. He participated with us in our sports. Most important he knew how to listen. Often when I was deeply concerned about personal crises, I went to him. One of the frustrations of my teens was watching Mother work so hard. I wanted to help more, but I knew how much my college education meant to her. It seemed impossible to earn enough part-time for college expenses and still be able to provide money to relieve her of her daily grind.
When I talked with Karl about this and other problems, he helped ease some of my tensions. It wasn't so much what he did to help as the fact that he was interested and concerned enough to offer the best advice he could.
Inspired by Karl's dedication, I volunteered to become a Sunday School teacher. At that time I had a heavy athletic schedule at UCLA. On Sunday mornings, when I woke up sore and aching because of a football game the day before, I yearned to just stay in bed. But no matter how terrible I felt, I had to get up.
Excerpted from I Never Had It Made, by Jackie Robinson Copyright © 1972 by Jackie Robinson. Excerpted by permission.
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