How Jackie Robinson’s Wife, Rachel, Helped Him Break Baseball’s Color Line

Style Magazine Newswire | 2/15/2019, 9:39 p.m.
Jackie Robinson, who would have turned 100 on Jan. 31, is often remembered for his courage, athleticism, tenacity and sacrifice. ...
Jackie and Rachel

By The Conversation, Chris Lamb, Professor of Journalism, IUPUI

Jackie Robinson, who would have turned 100 on Jan. 31, is often remembered for his courage, athleticism, tenacity and sacrifice. By confronting Jim Crow – both as a baseball player and as a civil rights activist – he changed America.

“Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable,” Martin Luther King Jr. said of Robinson, “he underwent … the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking through the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

I’ve written three books about Robinson, in addition to dozens of columns and articles. I used to wonder how Robinson persevered in the face of so much hate and ugliness. He was certainly as tough a competitor as any athlete who ever lived, and he had an unwavering religious faith.

But I eventually realized that he couldn’t have achieved what he did without his wife, Rachel, whose spirit was as formidable as his own.

Sure, he had his mother, Mallie; his minister, Karl Downs; Brooklyn Dodgers’ president, Branch Rickey, who signed him; and sportswriter Wendell Smith, who served as his ghostwriter and confidante.

Rachel, however, was the only constant.

“She was not simply the dutiful wife,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Roger Wilkins said about Rachel. “She had to live through the death threats, endure the vile screams of the fans and watch her husband get knocked down by pitch after pitch. … She was beautiful and wise and replenished his strength and courage.”

Rachel Isum met Jackie Robinson at UCLA when she was a freshman and he was a senior. Jackie was a four-letter athlete and “a big man on campus,” as she described him.

They married five years later on Feb. 10, 1946, a few months after Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey signed Jackie to play for the organization’s top minor league team, the Montreal Royals.

Two-and-a-half weeks after the wedding, the Robinsons left the relative comfort of Los Angeles to go to spring training in Florida. Robinson would have to confront both baseball’s color line and the Jim Crow laws of the South, where blacks who challenged segregation risked jail, injury or death.

Rachel knew she and Jackie could not react to every racial epithet hurled their way. But she wasn’t averse to quiet forms of resistance. When their plane stopped in New Orleans on their flight to Florida, Rachel saw something she had never seen before: separate restrooms for “white women” and “colored women.” She defiantly walked into restroom marked “white women.”

During that first spring training, segregation laws prohibited the Robinsons from staying in the same oceanfront hotel in Daytona Beach with his white teammates. Nor could they eat in white restaurants. They stayed with a black family and ate their meals in a black restaurant.

Robinson, feeling the weight of representing millions of black Americans, struggled during the beginning of spring training. He had trouble hitting, and he hurt his throwing arm so badly that he could barely lift it.