Rachel Robinson, the widow of trailblazing baseball legend Jackie Robinson, is a nursing professional and educator as well as an esteemed social activist.
Rachel Robinson, born on July 19, 1922 in Los Angeles, California, went on to earn her degree in nursing before marrying Jackie Robinson, who would make history as the first African-American player to compete in baseball's major leagues. The two faced an onslaught of threats and insults during their time as trailblazers and later made contributions to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Rachel made further advancements in her career as well, eventually serving as an assistant professor at Yale, and also established The Jackie Robinson Foundation, a scholarship foundation in her husband's name after his death.
Background and Education
Rachel Annetta Isum was born on July 19, 1922 in Los Angeles, California. She attended the University of California, where she met athlete Jackie Robinson in the early 1940s. Though the two knew they wanted the marry, their plans were put on hold when Robinson was called to serve in the Army as a second lieutenant while Rachel finished her schooling. She graduated in 1945 with a bachelor’s in science, having also working night shifts as a riveter.
Jackie Robinson and Historical Achievement
Rachel and Jackie were married on February 10, 1946, and went on to have three children. Jackie had begun to play baseball professionally for the Negro Leagues, and after being signed by Branch Rickey went on to become the first African-American player to compete in the major leagues, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
"I was the support person so often misidentified as the ‘little woman behind the great man,’ but I was neither little nor behind him. I felt powerful by his side as his partner, essential, challenged, and greatly loved."
Despite Robinson’s future renown as a trailblazer, he and Rachel faced an onslaught of racist treatment during his early major league days, dealing with everything from death threats and public insults to balls pitched with malice on the field. Rachel would later speak of the two working together to create a nurturing home for themselves and their children, relying on deep emotional intimacy to cope with the harassment.
Research and Professorial Work
While enjoying motherhood, referring to herself as a stereotypical “den mother,” Rachel nonetheless wanted to further develop her career. She earned her master’s in psychiatric nursing from New York University in 1959, going on to work for several years as a clinician/researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She later took on a position directing the nursing program at the Connecticut Mental Health Center and working as an assistant professor at Yale University’s School of Nursing, with both her and Jackie actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
Establishes Corporation and Non-Profit
In 1971, the couple’s oldest child Jack Robinson Jr. died in a car accident. The following year Jackie Robinson died from a heart attack and complications from diabetes, with Rachel’s mother then passing in April of 1973. Despite the emotional anguish and grief, Rachel maintained her resolve: In 1972 she established the Jackie Robinson Development Corporation, which specialized in providing housing for modest incomes. She also launched the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973, which has provided college scholarships and mentoring for hundreds of students of color over the decades.
Rachel Robinson has continued to help improve the lives of forthcoming generations and preserve the honorable legacy of her husband, having also published the photography book Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait in 1996, with the title reissued in 2014. Rachel was also consulted during the making of the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic 42, reviewing the script and meeting the film's lead actor Chadwick Boseman.