Jackie Robinson gained acclaim right from 1941 when he became the first athlete in the history of UCLA to earn a letter in four different sports in the same year – basketball, football, track and baseball. After being drafted into the Army, he was discharged in 1945.
He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Negro League before eventually becoming the first black player in major league baseball.
At the time, everyone was aware that the first black to break the color barrier in baseball would not only have to be talented but strong enough to withstand a barrage of racist attacks. Robinson did just that.
With courage and sacrifice, he confronted Jim Crow, both as a baseball player and as a civil rights activist, and helped changed America. Through it all, his wife, Rachel, was by his side.
Born Rachel Annetta Isum on July 19, 1922, and raised in northern California, Rachel met Robinson at UCLA when she was a freshman and he was a senior.
“I thought he’d be arrogant,” Rachel later recalled. But she was wrong.
“When I met Jack, he was so humble, so thoughtful – and handsome,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m glad I was wrong!’”
The two started a five-year courtship, and finally got married on February 10, 1946. “We always said we’d get married once Jack got a job,” said Rachel. “And then one day Branch Rickey called Jack.”
Rickey was then-president of the Brooklyn Dodgers who knew that Robinson was the best man they needed to break the race barrier in Major League Baseball.
Then problems for Rachel and Robinson began right from New Orleans where their plane stopped on their flight to Florida for spring training. Rachel, who grew up in northern California where racial discrimination was very subtle, was shocked to find that there were separate restrooms for white and colored women at the airport.
And when the first spring training began, she realized that segregation laws forbid them from staying in the same oceanfront hotel in Daytona Beach with Robinson’s white teammates. She and Robinson could also not eat in white restaurants and had to stay with a black family.
“Our bedroom was at the top of the stairs, a tiny room with just a dresser and a bed. Being from California the blatant racism that we came across every day down there, a lot of that was new to us. Jack and I heard some things I would never want to repeat.
“One evening we came back to the house after a really tough day. We went straight up to our room and fell onto the bed, exhausted. And then I looked at Jack and we suddenly started laughing. We couldn’t stop. It all seemed so ridiculous and surreal, our situation and what was happening in our lives,” Rachel said in 2013.
Robinson also struggled during the beginning of spring training but Rachel was there to give him all the support he needed. An article by Chris Lamb in The Conversation said Robinson had trouble hitting during his training, and this hurt his arm to the extent that he could hardly raise it.
At home every night, Rachel massaged his sore arm while comforting him amid the challenges he faced on and off the field. With determination and sacrifice, Robinson’s arm got better and he played the 1946 season with the Montreal Royals before being promoted to the Dodgers the next spring.
He became one of the best players in the National League, but not without the racial taunts.
“Racism was rampant at that time, but we knew the end goal was important. We weren’t going to lose because some crazies were shouting insults and throwing balls at his head,” Rachel was quoted by People.
Now a business leader, activist, professor, and nurse, Rachel recalled that some of the threats were specific. “‘I’m going to shoot Jackie in St. Louis.’ Or ‘I’m going to kill Rachel,’” were some of the threats, she said. However, the couple did not let the pressure drive them apart.
“We really felt that as long as we were together, nothing could happen to us. And luckily nothing ever did.”
“Home was our place away from the world, and it was central,” said Rachel. “We made a point not to talk about every negative encounter that happened. That would have been too much. We treated our home like a haven and when you come into a haven you don’t want to bring in painful things. You want to cherish it. You use the haven to get yourself ready for the next day.”
The couple made sure that their three children – Jackie Jr., Sharon and David – were shielded from the chaos. While Robinson was away playing baseball or doing civil rights work, Rachel took care of the children.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California and later earned a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from New York University.
Now in her late 90s, she worked as a researcher and clinician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Department of Social and Community Psychiatry; she held this position for five years. She then became Director of Nursing for the Connecticut Mental Health Center and an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Yale University.
In the 1960s, Rachel and her husband became prominent personalities in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, the pair hosted a jazz concert at their home in Connecticut to raise bail money for the student protestors jailed in Birmingham. The event was attended by many influential black people including civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972, Rachel founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a not-for-profit organization providing educational and leadership opportunities for minority students. The Foundation has provided support for over 1,000 minority students.
In a 1998 interview, Rachel, who is portrayed by actress Nicole Beharie in the movie 42, talked about her husband’s strong sense of responsibility.
“Even in the post-baseball period, he worked very hard to get into the civil rights movement, and to work on behalf of others. He had an interesting statement to make about what life meant to him, which the Jackie Robinson Foundation now uses. It was: that a life is not important, except in its impact on the lives of others.”