Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2022. 11:45 am CST.
By Aaron Humes: One week after her 100th birthday yesterday, Tuesday, the long-awaited opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum in lower Manhattan by his widow Rachel (née Isum) will take place.
Sports writer William C. Rhoden, writing for ESPN Andscape, says he believes the latter is more significant to Rachel, a former psychiatric nurse and professor, than a century of life, believing as she does that accomplishment during our lives matter more than longevity, and having pledged her life to keep Jackie’s legacy alive after his death in October 1972, aged just 53.
Former National League president and former chairman of the board of directors for the Jackie Robinson Foundation for 18 years, Len Coleman, testified as adviser and family friend to the strength of Rachel Robinson’s commitment to make the museum a reality: “I can tell you, there would be no museum without Rachel…She was insistent that she wanted this museum.”
In 2004, she introduced her idea of the Jackie Robinson Museum to her board. Coleman remembered that some board members pushed back. The foundation had developed a reputation for giving scholarships. “Some people said that we should just stick with scholarships and that it was going to be too difficult to raise the money,” Coleman recalled. “But when you think about it, there’s not a civil rights museum in New York. Also, the idea was not to just be showing Jack’s glove and bats and all that, but this was to be an interactive museum where people could come and discuss issues of social justice and make it a living and ongoing discussion. We would bring in schoolchildren, host forums and discuss significant issues of the day. That’s the way she viewed it.”
And that’s the way it would be despite a stall in fundraising due to economic issues; ultimately, US$35 million was raised through Rachel’s determination, which Coleman said was as strong as her late husband’s.
What’s important is not simply that Jackie and Rachel Robinson persevered, Rhoden writes. The important message — the timeless message — is how they persevered, how they overcame.
“Jack treated me like a partner and wanted me involved,” Rachel once told Rhoden. “He wasn’t overly dependent on me. There was a kind of mutual dependency there. And so that made it easier to be a part of things and it’s what drew me in.”
Back in 2009, Robinson indicated that the philosophical underpinning of the museum would be her husband’s often quoted statement: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” The museum was designed to be interactive, not merely historical. There would be a small theatre where invited speakers would speak and conversations facilitated. There would be a room for parties and celebrations.
Rachel’s experiences supporting Jackie and facing racism head-on contributed to her vision of the museum. Throughout her life, Robinson has heard the refrain that those days are gone and it’s time to move on. The nail may be gone but for those who suffered the slights and humiliation, the hole remains. The essence of Robinson’s life is how she has allowed the hole to heal, how she has moved on and persevered and forced a nation to be better.
“She’s got a phrase that she often uses even when things are down,” Coleman said. “She always says, ‘Upward and onward.’ I think that has symbolized her life.”
Robinson has been blessed with the opportunity to witness 100 years’ worth of history. She has used her time wisely. The chapters she has written are lessons in persistence and vigilance — reminders not only of what it takes to achieve freedom but what it takes to preserve freedom.
She is a reminder, says Rhoden, that rights may be won but their permanence is only guaranteed by vigilance.
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