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The Black Bruins
James W. Johnson
No Bed of Roses in Pasadena
"If you poor Georgians want to get a little closer to heaven, come on out to California."
— Burton Thomas, Jackie Robinson's uncle
Mallie Robinson had had enough. Her husband, Jerry, had left her for another woman and she was strapped with five children, the youngest of whom, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, was just over a year old. (He was known as Jack until sportswriters began calling him Jackie when he played football at UCLA.) Years later Robinson said that when he became of aware of how much his mother had to endure, "I could only think of [my father] in bitterness. He, too, may have been a victim of oppression, but he had no right to desert my mother and five children." When Robinson became famous, his father tried to pay a visit, but Jackie turned his back on him.
The Robinsons were living as sharecroppers on a plantation in Cairo (pronounced KAYrow), Georgia, in the heart of the Black Belt, the fertile land in the middle of the state where the densest population of African Americans in the United States lived. Cairo was just "a day's hike" from the Florida state line. Robinson would later call living as a sharecropper in Cairo "a newer, more sophisticated form of slavery." Mallie and her husband were making a decent living by sharecropping but only after she had stood up to the tough plantation owner for a greater share of the profits earned from their labor. They were what were called "half-croppers" because they had to give half of their crops to the white landowner. But when Jerry left, the owner would not allow Mallie's brother to help her bring in the crops. "You might as well go," he told Mallie. "I ain't gonna give you nothing." He kicked her out of their house, which he owned, one that was barely inhabitable. She saw only a bleak future, one of poverty and living under the humiliation of Jim Crow laws.
Then Mallie's half-brother Burton Thomas, well-dressed and exuding prosperity, paid a visit to Cairo and the Robinson family. He espoused the wonders of where he was living — Southern California. Mallie, her sister, and brother agreed to pack up their meager belongings and head to the Promised Land. The family entourage of thirteen (including children) boarded a midnight train from Cairo on May 21, 1921. Mallie remarked, "I hear that freedom train awhistling 'round that bend out yonder!"
A family friend, a young Charles Copeland, remembered the commotion at the train station. "I had never seen anything like it," he said. "It was a big thing for us, everyone was so excited."
When Mallie and the others passed through the San Gabriel Mountains, she was stunned by the beauty of Los Angeles. She called it "the most beautiful sight of my whole life." The train stopped at Pasadena, where the entourage got off. They were going to live in what was called the "the richest city per capita in America." "What my mother didn't know when she brought us here, what none of us knew, was that Pasadena was as prejudiced as any town in the South," said Jack's brother Mack years later. "They let us in all right, but they wouldn't let us live."
Mallie and her children — Edgar (ten), Frank (nine), Mack (six), Willa Mae (four), and Jack (sixteen months) — found a tiny three-room apartment near the train station. Thirteen people lived in that apartment, which had no hot water and no kitchen sink, and dishes were washed in a tub that also served as a bathtub. Mallie then set out to look for a job as she had but three dollars in her purse. A white Pasadena family agreed to hire her as a maid, a job she held for twenty years. After two years in Pasadena, Mallie and her sister's family bought a house at 121 Pepper Street in a white working-class section of Pasadena. Two more years passed before her sister and husband bought a house of their own, leaving Mallie the sole owner of the property where Jack would live until he left home seventeen years later.
The Robinsons were among eleven hundred African Americans who lived in Pasadena. They quickly learned that Jim Crow also resided in their new home. Blacks could find only menial jobs, and they were barred from many public places, such as the Brookside Plunge, which they were allowed to use only one day a week, after which the pool was drained. "Pasadena regarded us as intruders," Robinson would say. "My brothers and I were in many a fight that started with a racial slur on the very street we lived on. We saw movies from segregated balconies, swam in the municipal pool only on Tuesdays, and were permitted in the ymca only one night a week."
Pasadena residents also were concerned that African Americans living in their neighborhoods were driving down property values, and they wanted to emulate such nearby cities as Glendale, Eagle Rock, and San Marino, which refused to hire African Americans and had nary any within their limits. By 1940 Pasadena had hired no blacks as police officers, firefighters, or teachers. Some worked as laborers in the streets, parks, and refuse departments. The African American newspaper, the California Eagle, noted, "The condition of affairs surrounding the racial issues in Pasadena is nothing less that nauseating."
Even though the Robinsons lived in a comfortable two-story house with two bathrooms, a garden, and fruit trees in the backyard, they still were poor and often went without a meal. "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," Robinson remembered. Sometimes they ate just bread and a concoction of sugar and water Robinson called "sweet water." Years later his wife Rachel had to remind him to eat his vegetables. "I never developed a taste for them because I never ate them as a youngster," he said. His sister Willa Mae denied that the family went without meals, but Robinson remembered differently. He recalled that he could "never get my belt tight enough to keep that hurt in my stomach away." He added that if they went hungry, "you can bet money that my mother was twice as hungry." As noted, at times the people Mallie worked for let her fill her apron with leftover food to bring home. "We'd wait up, hoping she'd come home with a cake or pie," Robinson said.
Mallie found time in her busy work schedule to teach her children to respect themselves and to demand respect from others. "That's why I refused to back down in later life," Robinson wrote years later, "and won't back down now." Brother Mack said Jackie got his strength from his mother. "She instilled pride in him," he said. "She wouldn't take anything from anybody. She was a real strong woman. It took a lot of guts to come out to California with five small kids. ... Jackie inherited a lot from her; we all did."
There was little doubt of racism in their neighborhood and beyond. "We went through a sort of slavery with the whites slowly, very slowly, getting used to us," Willa Mae said. Neighbors tried unsuccessfully to buy the Robinsons out of their home. A cross was burned on the front lawn. Police often were called to keep the black children off the streets. When Jack was about eight years old, he was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house when a little white girl began chanting, "Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!" Jack responded by calling her "a cracker," a slur that his brother Mack told him was the worst thing you could call a white person. The girl's father ran out of the house after Jack. They began throwing rocks at each other until the man's wife coaxed him back into the house.
Once Jack's brother Edgar rode his skates to the grocery store to buy bread. A neighbor complained to police about the noise. "I'm sorry they're so touchy that the noise of skates disturbs them," Mallie told police. "But there's no law against skating on the sidewalk, is there?" The policeman replied, "No, but the man who called us told us that his wife is afraid of colored people." Mallie told the officer she would tell Edgar to go around the block and avoid the neighbor's house.
While Mallie was working, Willa Mae cared for Jack, bathing, dressing, and feeding him. She even took him to school with her when Jack wasn't old enough to attend. He would play in the sandbox on the school grounds while he waited for her. When it rained, Willa Mae's teacher brought him inside.
When it was time for Jack to attend school, he was enrolled in Cleveland Elementary School for two years before transferring to Washington Elementary. "In those days he would come home from school, gulp down a glass of milk, put his books on that old dresser, and be out the door playing ball with the kids," Willa Mae said. All he was interested in was playing sports. "He wasn't a great student," Willa Mae said, "but that was only because somewhere along the line he decided sports would be his life." He was a C student in high school. When one of his grades would slip, he would work harder on another subject to keep the average necessary to play sports. "To do more would have meant giving up at least one sport, and I couldn't," he recalled.
When he was eight, Jack discovered that at least in sports he was allowed to compete with whites. "Sports were the big breach in the wall of segregation about me," Robinson said. "In primary and high school white boys treated me as an equal." Robinson's classmates would share their lunches with him if he played on their team. "He was a special little boy, and ever since I can remember he always had a ball in his hand," Willa Mae said.
At twelve Jack moved on to Washington Junior High, where he earned C's and B's. His school transcript carried a remark from a school official stating that he probably would wind up as a gardener. In his free time Robinson delivered newspapers, ran errands, sold hot dogs at the nearby Rose Bowl, and cut grass to help out the family. During those years several more black families moved into the neighborhood, as did Mexicans, Asians, and poor whites. Their commonality was that they were poor. The boys formed the Pepper Street Gang, where they all-blacks, Latinos, Asians, and even a few whites-hung out together, at times getting into minor mischief. Robinson's widow said the gang was more like the "Little Rascals" than the gangs of today. They threw dirt clods at cars, found lost golf balls on the golf course and sold them back to golfers, and stole items from stores, mostly food. "People used to ask me how Jack got so good throwing a baseball and a football," Willa Mae remarked, "and I said it was from throwing rocks at the other kids who threw rocks at him."
As his competitive nature started to show, Robinson once confronted a quarterback from a rival school before a game. He didn't introduce himself. He simply said, "I heard you were lucky in your last game. How are you gonna go ninety-eight yards for a touchdown against us?" Then he turned and walked away. Early day trash talk.
During this time he became more and more aware of "a growing resentment at being deprived of some of the advantages the white kids had." Because he and his friends had little access to the municipal pool, they would swim in a nearby reservoir. One day they heard a booming voice say, "Looka there — niggers swimming in my drinking water." They were escorted to jail at gunpoint before they were sent home.
Robinson, Ray Bartlett, and their friends would go to the movie theaters, "but we could only sit in certain places," said Bartlett, who had known Robinson since they were seven years old. "I never thought much about it ... , but Jackie knew how the world really worked back then. What he saw bothered him. It bothered him much more than the rest of us."
"They weren't out to do trouble," Willa Mae said. "They just were a bunch of kids who enjoyed being together and mostly playing ball games." Bartlett and Robinson became lifelong friends who went through grade school, high school, and college together and stayed in touch over the years.
Bartlett was born in Pasadena and lived most of his life there. His father, Vincent, sold real estate, and his mother, Fay, was a nurse. When his mother told him the racism he faced would "all change one day," he didn't believe her, Bartlett recalled. "But I felt that things could be changed through the system. That's what I worked for."
Robinson said his mother always maintained 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."
Eventually the white neighbors began to accept the Robinsons, mostly out of respect for Mallie, who worked so hard to nurture her family despite daunting odds. Said Bartlett: "I can't think of any way that growing up [in Pasadena] helped Jackie. I really can't." Robinson wrote later in life that when he left ucla, he "didn't want anything to do with Pasadena."
Robinson could have become a juvenile delinquent had it not been for two men who shared his mother's values. One was a mechanic, Carl Anderson, who took him aside to tell him that following the crowd didn't take guts but that he had to show courage and intelligence to walk away. That was a lesson that proved extremely valuable to Robinson when he broke the color barrier in baseball many years later. The other man was the Reverend Karl Downs, a young minister where Mallie attended church. Robinson grew to trust Downs, often going to him for advice. "He helped ease some of my tensions." Over a period of ten years, Downs offered Robinson advice that he found useful while attending junior high, high school, and ucla. "I'm not sure what would have happened to Jack if he had never met Reverend Downs," Bartlett said years later.
Downs watched Robinson play football on Saturdays and then made sure that Robinson taught a Sunday school class the following morning. Robinson agreed to teach the class because he respected Downs so much. He would rather have slept in after a grueling football game on Saturday night, "but no matter how terrible I felt, I had to get up. It was impossible to shirk duty when Karl Downs was involved." Years later Rachel Robinson recalled how Downs helped Robinson change his life. "The religious beliefs that Karl helped stimulate in him would strengthen his ability to cope with all the challenges he would face in his life," she said.
Across town thirteen-year-old Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode was starting at McKinley Junior High School, where his athletic ability began to develop. Because he was five years older than Robinson and lived in a section of Los Angeles called the East Side, Strode and Robinson most likely never crossed paths until they arrived at ucla.
Strode was born in Los Angeles on July 25, 1914, to parents who had emigrated from New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1900. They too were looking for the Promised Land. He had a brother, Baylous Strode Jr., who was two years older. (In his autobiography, Goal Dust, Strode does not give the first names of his parents. It is likely his father's first name was Baylous.) His father was a brick mason and his mother a homemaker. His father earned his high school diploma at night.
Strode's three given names came from President Woodrow Wilson and Los Angeles district attorney Tom Woolwine. "Well, I had to get rid of that title," he said. "'And now, ladies and gentlemen, Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode!' It was like a goddamned announcement. So I cut it down to Woody Strode," he wrote in his autobiography. His lineage was a mix of African American and Native American, a heritage that gave him a distinct look that would pay huge dividends in his adult years. His great-grandfather married a Creek Indian, and his grandfather, a Blackfoot. His mother's mother was a slave who was part Cherokee. "That's how close the Indians and the slaves were in those days. They were both downtrodden in America," Strode wrote.
Strode was born four years after his parents moved from New Orleans. His parents raised Strode to be color-blind. They never talked about race. "He saw the white people out here were different from the white people where he came from," Strode wrote about his father. "He wanted me to fall into their path. That's why he never talked about race." It was this upbringing that separated Jackie Robinson from Strode in their attitude toward race relations in the 1930s and beyond. Their attitudes also differed because of where they lived. Strode lived in a predominately black area, with some Germans, Italians, and Mexicans mixed in, while Robinson resided in a poor neighborhood that was surrounded and dominated by a wealthy white enclave. "I think that's why Jack had a little more hate going than the rest of us," Strode said.
Strode attended the Holmes Avenue Grammar School across the street from his house on the East Side, later to be known as South-Central, and not far from the Los Angeles Coliseum. Today the East Side is more than 90 percent Latino. The school was run by a black principal, Bessie Burke, the first black teacher in the Los Angeles schools.