Jackie Robinson’s family home in Stamford, Connecticut, had a den housing trophies and antiques and a large scrapbook commemorating his many accomplishments. His son David Robinson fondly recalled in an interview how one of the walls carried pictures and paintings depicting his father’s success in sports. Another wall – with a collection twice as large – highlighted his father’s social activism, something of much greater importance to Jackie Robinson and his family.
The spirit evoked in this den, which emphasizes social activism over sports, along with many of the same artifacts, continues to a new museum in Lower Manhattan dedicated to the legacy of one of the most important figures in American history.
The new Jackie Robinson Museum—New York City’s first museum largely dedicated to the civil rights movement—will host a ribbon-cutting party Tuesday and open its doors to the public on September 5, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the legacy of Robinson and his companions. A widow, Rachel, in a much larger modern version of the family den, in the same spirit as using sport as a means to promote social progress.
“But the collection is a thousand times bigger,” said David Robinson, who lives in Tanzania but was in New York for his mother’s birthday and the museum’s opening. “Some of the things we grew up on are now of great historical significance, and the museum is a place for everyone to see, and so much more. It would be a marvel of communicating modern information.”
Rachel Robinson, who turned 100 last week, will cut the ribbon on an institution she has long envisioned as a center for people to learn about the brave work that her husband, along with her, has done to help transform American society by integrating Major League Baseball, and many other projects.
Jackie Robinson, a young star with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, broke the color barrier in the Major White Leagues on April 15, 1947, when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League. He immediately became a symbol of hope for racial equality in the United States, but as museum-goers will discover, Robinson’s tireless work to tear down barriers began long before then. They lasted long after he retired as a player after the 1956 season.
Visitors will see that while Robinson was in the Army during World War II, he successfully pushed to allow black soldiers into the officer training program, which he completed in 1943 and emerged as a second lieutenant. They will learn how Robinson, after retiring from baseball, broke down barriers in advertising, broadcasting, and business, and how he set up a bank to help black citizens, often left out of basic loans, secure capital.
Museum organizers also hope to inspire his work and that of Rachel along with many pillars of the civil rights movement, including Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Whitney Young, people David Robinson remembers for visiting. Parents at home in Stamford.
“It was an important period of history that the museum abbreviated,” said David Robinson. “If we have no memory of this conflict, we lose touch with an important period of American history that can help guide us today and is a tribute to all the people who took my mother’s wish and made it happen.”
Among those people is Della Britton, tireless president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Rachel Robinson to continue her husband’s legacy through educational and undergraduate scholarships to 242 students each year.
The museum has already started online programs with schools across the country and, in conjunction with Rachel Robinson’s ultimate goal, hopes to become a beacon that will encourage and support the next wave of leaders in the fight for social justice.
“When we first started this mission to build the museum, Rachel told me, ‘I don’t want it to be just a shrine to Jack, I want it to be a place that brings people together and continues the conversation about the hardest issue of our society, then and now, which is race relations,'” Britton said. What kept me here for 18 years. And since we evolved politically during that period, it seems more compelling and more important.”
Setting up and operating the museum was a challenge. Britton said funding problems dating back to the 2008 financial crisis, which was eventually followed by the pandemic and subsequent supply chain problems around the world, forced the museum to delay the opening for years. The Foundation raised $38 million of the $42 million sought to build the museum, of which $25 million went to capital investment for construction.
Now, the museum is finally ready to open, complete with 4,500 artifacts and 40,000 historical photographs. It features more than 8,000 square feet of permanent exhibition space in a prime location on the TriBeCa border, and another 3,500 square feet of classroom and gallery space.
Britton said a study conducted on behalf of the museum in 2018 estimated between 100,000 and 120,000 visitors annually, but the museum is preparing for more, especially since there is currently no other museum like it in New York.
“In a city where Mrs. Liberty welcomes you, there is no other civil rights museum,” Britton said. “this is important.” The museum houses an impressive collection of artifacts and exhibits that connect Robinson’s athletic success to his pioneering civil rights work. Visitors will be able to see messages he exchanged with Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ president and general manager who originally signed with Robinson, that reflect their complex relationship.
They can also learn about some of Robinson’s friends and allies, including Ralph Branca, the Ramy Dodgers who was the first teammate to befriend Robinson, and Hank Greenberg, a Jewish Detroit Tigers batsman who struggled with anti-Semitism in baseball and was the first opposing player to offer lyrics Robinson’s support and encouragement. There’s an exposition about John Wright, a lesser-known Negro league player that Ricky signed on three months after he signed with Robinson. Along with Robinson, Wright was the victim of racial abuse in minor leagues. He eventually returned to the Homestead Grays without having a chance to break into the Dodgers’ family.
The museum also has a uniform and bat used by Robinson in 1947, the Rookie of the Year award, the 1949 National League Player of the Year award, the original Hall of Fame plaque, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many other items.
Each day, the e-strip sign will display a question of the day for visitors and school groups to have conversations about race.
“It could be something like, ‘Was Colin Kaepernick right to take his knee during the national anthem?'” Britton said. “The idea is to start a conversation and get people to think.”
Britton and her family are hosting a ribbon-cutting party on Tuesday, and guests will include leading tennis star Billie Jean King; Director Spike Lee. Eric Holder, former Attorney General of the United States; former players CC Sabathia and Willie Randolph; and John Branca, board member and nephew of Ralph Branca.
During a recent tour, Britton highlighted many of the museum’s unique features, including a 3D Ebbets Field that highlights where many of Robinson’s accomplishments take place, but also things like the hot dog booth where Rachel Robinson warmed milk bottles for Jackie Robinson, Jr. The eldest, who died in 1971.
David Robinson, born in 1952, was too young to remember his father’s playing days. His fondest memories revolve around family dinners, fishing trips, and especially golf, where David loved to carry cans for his father.
“We played wherever we could, in isolated and segregated Connecticut,” David recalls. “He could only be a European guest at those golf clubs. But we traveled to the Caribbean, Spain. It was so much fun to be around.”
Other important memories included gatherings at home with other civil rights leaders, and vigorous discussions about ways to improve the lives of millions of Americans—the main theme the museum seeks to convey. In this way, David, his sister Sharon, and their mother believed that Jackie Robinson would have considered the museum an important extension of a shared legacy.
“He rarely says, ‘I’,” David Robinson recalls. He was saying, ‘We’ve done great things. But I think he would be happy to showcase his achievements in terms of American development, to try and inspire action today.”