Unpublished Black History

Credit The New York Times

A Jackie Robinson Mystery


It was 1949, the year Jackie Robinson would bat .342 for the Brooklyn Dodgers and receive the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, just 31 months after becoming the first black player in the major leagues.
But on Feb. 14, before the season started, before the crowds poured into Ebbets Field, Mr. Robinson spoke to the Sociology Society at City College in New York.
This photograph, unpublished until now, documents the moment, with the students leaning forward to hear him speak. But what was he discussing? The photo caption offers only a hint, saying that Mr. Robinson was speaking about “his work with Harlem boys’ groups.”

We know that Mr. Robinson coached children at the YMCA in Harlem a year earlier, to help, as he put it, “keep them off the streets.” And it is easy to imagine how his successes and struggles would have resonated with African-American boys and teenagers at a time when racial discrimination was rife. “I had to fight hard against loneliness, abuse and the knowledge that any mistake I made would be magnified because I was the only black man out there,” Mr. Robinson wrote in his memoir, “I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson,” describing those early years with the Dodgers.

But The New York Times didn’t publish an article about the ballplayer’s visit to City College that day. So this morning we turned to you for help.

Several readers (from Brooklyn, San Francisco and elsewhere) pointed us to City College’s undergraduate newspaper, “The Campus,“ which published an article about Mr. Robinson’s speech to students on Feb. 18, 1949. 

The article said that Mr. Robinson had spent five months, during his off-season, working with underprivileged children at the YMCA in Harlem. “I’ve learned more from the kids than they’ve learned from me,” said Mr. Robinson, who described his work to members of the Sociology Society, adding that it had given him “great satisfaction.” 

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