As we straddle Black History Month and Women's History Month, is there a better way to celebrate than honoring the timeless Rachel Robinson. Without Rachel, would there have been a Jackie?
Now 99 years old (100 in July of 2022), Rachel was only 50 years old when Jackie Robinson passed away. She would have a lifetime to build on the legacy that they both built together.
Rachel Isum was born in Los Angeles, and attended Manual Arts High School, before enrolling at UCLA, where she would meet a young Jackie Robinson. In 1943, Rachel would transfer to U.C. San Francisco School of Nursing. During the war, Rachel would join the Cadet Nurse Corps, while Jackie was enlisted in the Army.
The two were reunited in 1944, until Jackie would hit the road to play for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. That same year, Rachel would graduate from UCA with honors receiving a degree in Nursing and winning the Florence Nightingale Award for clinical excellence. Post graduation, Rachel would go to work at LA General Hospital in the nursery. In August of 1945, both Jackie and Rachel's lives would be changed forever. While meeting Branch Rickey he would be quoted as saying “You got a girl? then marry her right away."
Rachel and Jackie had already set a wedding date, but first Rachel would move to Harlem, to work first in a restaurant, then at a Hospital in Manhattan. Rachel and Jackie would marry on February 10, 1946, three weeks before flying to Florida for Spring Training with the Montreal Royals, the minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
While Rachel has experienced some level of racism growing up, she was not prepared for the reception she and Jackie would receive in the American South. Barred from airplanes, forced to stay in second-rate hotels and unable to find restaurants that would serve them, Rachel would learn to quickly adapt to her new surroundings.
Recognizing that Rachel would be vital to assisting Jackie assimilate to his new surrounding, Branch Rickey would allow Rachel to attend Spring Training with the other players. She would be the only wife granted such privilege. Rachel would help Jackie establish a sense of community in Montreal, and help him bear the burden of breaking baseball's color barrier. The first season was a success with Jackie's team winning the Minor League World Series. Rachel and Jackie would return to Los Angeles after the season to give birth to their first child, Jackie Jr. The following season, Rachel would be in the stands on April, 15, 1947 when Jackie would break baseball's color barrier.
As Jackie had established himself, both he and Rachel began to become unburdened with being able to express themselves publicly. When reporters would ask Rachel questions about their challenges with housing or travel, they now felt free to speak. When an article in the Bridgeport Herald made the Robinson's the focal point of an article on housing challenges, Andrea and Richard Simon (Founder of Simon and Schuster) would befriend them both, and became influential in getting realtors to work with Rachel in finding a home.
The life they would create in Connecticut would create more of a community, but would still be a largely white surrounding. One such challenge was when Jackie, the most famous African-American man in the country was denied membership at a Connecticut country club. As Rachel would see Emmett Till lynched in the south and children blocked from Central High School in Little Rock, it became clear that she and Jackie would play a more public role in the Civil Rights movement.
At the conclusion of the 1956 series in Japan, and beginning to face some health concerns, Jackie would retire from Major League Baseball.
While Jackie would take on a role as VP at Chock Full O’ Nuts Coffee, and activist for the NAACP. Rachel would apply to the Graduate School of Nursing at NYU. She was admitted to the psychiatric nursing program in 1959 at the age of 37. Upon graduating in 1961, Rachel would begin working at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in its Department of Social and Community Psychiatry.
Rachel and Jackie would find themselves on opposite sides when Jackie supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, (a decision he later regretted), and Rachel, a third-generation Democrat would support John F. Kennedy. Despite this rare divide, they would join forces at the March 1963 March on Washington, highlighted with Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech.
After leaving Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Rachel would work as the director of nursing for the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven, and as an assistant professor of nursing at Yale University.
Jackie's health would deteriorate to the point that he would pass away at age 53. Rachel would resign from her position at Yale to found the Jackie Robinson Development Corporation to develop affordable housing for underserved families. In 1973 Rachel, along with others formed the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Rachel would receive such honors as the Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Equitable Life Black Achievers Award and the Associated Black Charities Black History Makers Award. She would receive 12 honorary doctorates, including one from her alma mater, New York University. UCLA would honor her with a Medal in 2009, the University’s highest honor. In 2017 she was given the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, presented every three years to a person who enhances baseball’s positive image on society.
In 1997 when, with the assistance of National League President and Jackie Robinson Foundation Chairman Len Coleman, it was announced that baseball would celebrate the league-wide retirement of Robinson’s number 42. Without Rachel, would there have been a Jackie?