The Robinson family in 1925. In the rear, from left are Mack, Jackie, Edgar, Willa Mae, and Frank, Sitting is their mother Mallie Robinson. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jackie Robinson’s family fled Georgia to Pasadena. But the city had its own version of Jim Crow.
Born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, Jackie Robinson was still a toddler when he moved with his family to Pasadena, where his single mother believed they would have more opportunity. But the affluent, mostly white city had its own version of Jim Crow.
Minorities were only allowed to swim at the municipal pool Tuesdays, designated “International Day,” between 2 and 5 p.m. On Pepper Street, where the Robinsons bought a home, white neighbors pressured the family to leave. A cross was burned on their front lawn.
As a young teen, Robinson ran with an interracial group of kids called the “Pepper Street gang” who would challenge white boys to football and other games, then collect on bets. He established himself as a sports phenom at John Muir Technical High School, joining every team he could, then graduated to Pasadena City College and UCLA, where he lettered in track, basketball, football, and baseball by the end of his first year.
If he wanted, Robinson could have gone on to be not just a good player, but a star in whatever sport he chose, the ESPN writer Howard Bryant said in the Ken Burns film “Jackie Robinson.” He added: “You could make an argument that Jackie Robinson was the greatest athlete in American history.”
Robinson’s choice, to join the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke baseball’s color barrier and made him an American icon. He never looked back at Pasadena. His animus toward the city was heightened by the treatment his older brother faced there. Mack Robinson was a sports star in his own right, earning a silver medal in the 200 meters at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, behind only Jesse Owens. Upon his return to Pasadena, however, the only work he could find was as a street sweeper. He performed the job while wearing his Olympic jacket.
Today, giant bronze statues of both Robinson brothers hold a place of honor outside City Hall. Jackie’s head is deliberately pointed East, where he escaped Pasadena to make history.
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