Jackie Robinson was just sixteen months old when his mother, Mallie, took him, his three brothers, and his sister to live in Pasadena, California, in 1920. They had been living the life of a sharecropper family near Cairo, Georgia. A black sharecropper’s existence in Georgia was hard enough, but the Robinson family suffered even more when Jackie’s father, Jerry, deserted them. Mallie’s half-brother Burton, who found prosperity out west, offered refuge from the harsh realities of life in the American South. To some, Jackie Robinson spent too little time in his birth state to be remembered as a Georgian. Much of the way Jackie lived his life, however, was a direct result of the adversity his family experienced in Georgia, the way they reacted to those hardships, and because of their tightly-held values they passed down to young Jackie.
Standing up to adversity and coming through difficult times with their values intact was a family trait long before Jackie faced his own civil rights challenges. Mallie’s parents, Washington and Edna McGriff, were born slaves, and although the Civil War Amendments – the 13th, 14th, and 15th – Constitutionally guaranteed black Americans full citizenship and the rights thereof, Jim Crow law in the South made enjoying those rights nearly impossible and often dangerous. Literacy tests, white primaries, poll taxes, and other “loop-hole” practices allowed empowered whites to keep blacks from voting. Open intimidation and the threat of lynching kept many from reaching the full fruits of their labors. Through it all, the McGriffs managed to find a level of prosperity never before experienced by their ancestors, but they would not reach the quality of life of their white peers. They pushed religion, education, and a strong work ethic on their children in hopes that a better life might be in store for the McGriff offspring.
Mallie only made it through the sixth grade, but she could at least read and write; an important skill for blacks in the South who were so often taken advantage of by educated, land-owning whites. When Mallie married Jackie’s father, Jerry Robinson, in 1909, they lived and worked on the Jim Sasser plantation. Sasser preferred to pay his tenant farmers a meager monthly wage rather than offer a share of the plantation’s production. Furthermore, his plantation store served as the most convenient way for tenant’s to purchase needed items; this kept money paid out re-circulating through the plantation and kept many indebted to it. Mallie knew her husband to be a good farmer, and seeing the situation as little-more than a contemporary form of slavery, persuaded her husband to approach Sasser about becoming a sharecropper. Sasser grudgingly agreed.
The new relationship worked well for some time, but Jerry became increasingly tired of farming and, unfortunately, of his own family. Mallie forgave him on several occasions for marital indiscretions, but the marriage was destined to failure. With Jerry gone, the situation with Sasser worsened until there were few options left; Mallie and her children had to find a better life. The family took Burton Thomas’s offer of hospitality in California. Though Jackie was too young to realize it, the prejudice and inequality built into Georgia life was his first run-in with racism. The move to California, though, proved to be a fortunate one for Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
Jackie’s mother worked hard in California, and, with the aid of welfare, the family could afford to move out of Burton’s home. Mallie did her best to support her family, but they often lacked nourishing meals, and she could not pay for childcare. In his autobiography, Jackie recalled going to school with his sister Willa Mae. Jackie, not yet of school age, was left in the schoolyard’s sandbox to entertain himself until dismissal at about lunchtime.
At the age of ten, a young neighbor of the same age forced Jackie to face and deal with racism directed at him personally. While sweeping the sidewalk outside their home, Jackie became aware of the little neighbor girl shouting racial slurs at him. He released an insult of his own directed toward her at which point the girl’s father came out of the house. The grown man, incensed at the affront to his daughter (rather than with his own child’s behavior), engaged eight-year-old Jackie in a stone-throwing battle. Mallie tried to stop it, but she was forced inside by rocky projectiles whenever she tried to open the door. Jack’s brothers supplied ammunition, and the encounter was said to have lasted nearly an hour. It was only when the man’s wife came out and ordered him inside did the skirmish end. Though Mallie was likely unhappy about the stone-throwing, the encounter exemplified the fearlessness with which she went at life and that which she taught to her children, and it was an early indication of how Jackie would approach future injustices.
Growing up, Jackie found camaraderie with other minority children. His Pepper Street gang, made up of other black children, as well as those of Japanese and Mexican heritage, banded together and caused headaches for local produce sellers (the gang regularly ran off with fruit), car owners (who found their cars bombarded by dirt clumps), and golfers (whose golf balls were snatched up and sold back by the gang). There were many good influences in Jackie’s life, however, such as the Reverend Karl Downs, who helped the boy along his way. Ultimately, these positive influences and the strong Robinson work ethic won out, and Jackie entered college following a successful athletic and educational experience in high school.
At John Muir Technical High School, Jackie lettered in football, basketball, baseball, and track and his opponents saw him as the man to beat. He seemed destined for athletic stardom. He went on to Pasadena Junior College where he again starred. It was here that he broke his ankle, an injury that would plague him later. Upon his return, however, he quarterbacked the team to five straight victories to end his first season, then to an undefeated season the next year. He continued to star in track and baseball as well; he surpassed his own brother Mack’s broad jumping record and helped the baseball team win the championship. Jackie even excelled at golf, winning the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate championship, and at tennis, earning a spot in the semifinals of the National African American tennis tournament. As he continued to grow and improve, his family kept on providing support and acting as role models for the budding star. Mack sprinted to second place behind Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics and brother Frank provided continuing encouragement and advice. Unfortunately, Frank died in a traffic accident before seeing the man Jackie would become.
Scholarship offers flooded in and Jackie decided on UCLA where he became the first athlete to letter in the four major sports – basketball, baseball, football, and track. He gained national attention as a football phenomenon – Stanford’s coach, who boasted one of the most amazing backfield’s at the time, called Jackie the greatest backfield runner he had ever seen. In basketball, he led his conference in scoring and scored more than half the UCLA points in an important game against USC.
His stardom did not shield Jackie against the racism of the day. In 1939, while driving with friends, a white driver bumped their car with his. Following an argument, police charged Jackie with robbery. The charge was eventually dropped, but the incident again showed Jackie’s tendency to not turn the other cheek in the face of racial injustice and served to prepare him for similar future offenses.
One last note should be mentioned regarding Jackie’s time in college. It was at UCLA that a friend introduced Jackie to his future wife Rachel Isum. Though they both expressed shyness early on, and Rachel believed Jackie to be a bit conceited, they soon hit it off. Jackie found a strong connection to her when he witnessed her grief following her father’s death in 1940. When Jackie decided to leave UCLA – he had concluded that an education did little to help a black man’s chances for employment and that his mother needed financial help – Rachel supported his decision. Their relationship would soon be tested, however, as the tender early years would often be conducted from a long distance.