The newly sworn-in group of galvanized women and men of the 116th Congress brings the promise of vital new leadership in Washington, DC. Many of these freshman representatives are people of color, reflecting the diversity of the nation. While much evidence for this swift and unprecedented surge points to the policies of the current administration and the conduct of our Commander-in-Chief, we must remember that the ascension of this new generation to national office is rooted in a foundation of courage and self-sacrifice laid years before by the leaders that preceded them. Like Hall-of-Famer and civil rights champion Jackie Robinson.
If you’re a Baby Boomer or older, then you were alive when Robinson was front and center, on and off the baseball field. Jim Crow was still in full swing, despite judicial wins against segregation. While breaking baseball’s color barrier through the Brooklyn Dodgers is the achievement with which Robinson will always be most associated (that, and being the first Rookie of the Year in 1947), the Georgia native faced racial injustice all of his life.
Now, here in NYC, and after many years in the making, there will soon be a permanent physical space honoring the legacy of Number 42. The Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) will open its doors to the 18,500-square-foot Jackie Robinson Museum in downtown NYC this December. But starting this month, the JRF will roll out the Jackie Robinson Centennial Celebration to commemorate that milestone with a year-long schedule of events to benefit the organization’s scholarship and education programs and the museum itself. The opening event will be a photo exhibit entitled “In the Dugout with Jackie Robinson” at the Museum of the City of New York. It opens Jan. 31 (Robinson’s actual 100th birthday) and runs untlil May 31. This will be followed by traveling exhibits and tributes nationwide all year.
I recently chatted with Della Britton Baeza, the JRF’s President and CEO. Excerpts from our conversation are below, lightly edited.
Robin Rothstein: What was the impetus to create this museum?
Della Britton Baeza: On Apr. 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson took a major step for civil rights, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the US. His ardent crusade for opportunity forever altered the social landscape of the country and opened the door for people of color across multiple industries outside of professional sports. Seven decades later, racial inequality remains an urgent social issue that demands discussion and concerted action that will help to preserve what makes our nation the greatest in the world. So the Museum will expand the foundation’s mission — to educate and expose current and future generations of Americans to Jackie Robinson’s journey, and an era that was pivotal in forming a more inclusive society.
Also, Rachel Robinson has long held an interest in creating a permanent, fixed tribute to her pioneering husband. Members of the Robinson family will always remain involved with the Museum.
RR: Tell me a bit about JRF and its programs.
DBB: We were founded in 1973; for 25 years, JRF has advanced higher education by providing generous, multi-year scholarship awards, coupled with a comprehensive set of support services to highly motivated JRF Scholars and Extra Innings Fellows attending colleges and universities throughout the country.
Our scholarship program takes a two-pronged approach. It provides generous four-year grants, and hands-on, comprehensive support services to ensure not only that JRF Scholars graduate from college, but that they self-actualize. There’s a “mentoring curriculum” — we dub it 42 Strategies for Success — that promotes leadership skills and character traits that both benefit JRF Scholars and positively impact their communities.
Since its inception, JRF has provided $85 million in scholarships and direct program support to more than 1,500 JRF Scholars. These students have hailed from 45 states and attended 260 different colleges and universities. JRF Scholars maintain a nearly 100% graduation rate — more than double the national rate for African-American college students.
Last fall, we launched JRF Impact, an online portal that allows a broad population of college students access to that “Strategies for Success” curriculum, including opportunities for interactive online mentoring.
And finally, the Jackie Robinson Museum will open in NYC in December 2019. This will expand our mission to educate and inspire the general public around the values of humanitarianism and equal opportunity that define the lives and legacy of Jackie and Rachel Robinson and the Robinson family.
RR: The museum will be on Varick Street in a very busy area between Soho and Tribeca. How did you select this site?
DBB: Lower Manhattan is a dynamic neighborhood for the Museum. It’s accessible via mass transit, and there are other cultural destinations for families, tourists and educational groups to visit, such as the financial district, Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial.
RR: I want to ask about the exhibits we can expect, but, along with that, can you explain why you feel we need this museum now?
DBB: We’ll have interactive exhibitions, educational programming and events to illuminate the life and character of one of our nation’s most storied athletes and social trailblazers. Given the current social climate in America, it is critical for venues like the Museum to maintain, and add to, the national dialogue, and to deliver educational programming pertaining to equality and opportunities for Americans of every race, nationality, religious background or sexual orientation.
RR: But you do want people other than baseball fans to connect with you.
DBB: Our mission is to connect with people from all walks of life. We especially want to connect with young people who may not know who Jackie Robinson was. It’s important for people of all ages to understand our history in America. It’s important for all people to understand how far we have come towards equality, thanks to the contributions and sacrifices made by individuals like Jackie Robinson. We want our visitors to leave with a better understanding of what his journey was like while understanding the importance of meaningful discussion and ongoing education in preserving equality in our democracy.
RR: What would Jackie Robinson say about how civil rights have progressed?
DBB: Certainly, we cannot speak for Jackie Robinson, but when we think of what he dealt with in his time, and the issues we are faced with today, one of his famous quotes comes to mind: “The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.”
RR: Would Jackie Robinson have had the same impact on American society had Branch Rickey not recruited him for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947?
DBB: I think he was one of those special individuals who would have succeeded no matter what circumstances or obstacles presented themselves. He was intelligent, determined, a born leader and understood the challenges that he and Rachel would need to endure to achieve their goal of equality. And — Branch Rickey was a visionary. But I’m hopeful that had Mr. Rickey not committed to signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier in professional sports, it would have only been a matter of time before another sports owner would have seen the benefit of signing gifted athletes of color.
RR: Are there examples of modern-day Jackie Robinsons?
DBB: This is purely subjective, but you might consider:
- Billie Jean King, who did so much for equality, women’s rights and social change;
- Arthur Ashe, the first African American to win a tennis Grand Slam championship and captain our American Davis Cup team. Ashe also spoke out against discrimination in the US and abroad. He aligned with the activist organization “Transafrica,” founded by Randall Robinson, brother of pioneering broadcast journalist Max Robinson. Ashe also co-founded the National Junior Tennis League in 1969 (now the National Junior Tennis and Learning network, which has over 350 chapters);
- LeBron James, who has been outspoken on issues of social injustice and donated millions to education and improving the lives of others in order to level the playing field throughout society;
- Serena Williams, who champions the rights of women and serves as an important role model for empowering women globally; and
- Colin Kapernick, who stood up for something he believed in. To this day he is shunned by the NFL, demonstrating the kind of courage that invokes Jackie Robinson.
RR: Define leadership the way Jackie Robinson would have defined it.
DBB: Perhaps an oft-cited quote of his is responsive: “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.” Robinson believed that if one does not get involved in advocating for and promoting positive change, such change will not occur. This thinking is leadership.