Baseball legend and Civil Rights hero Jackie Robinson was born south of Cairo in Grady County, Georgia. An old brick chimney on Hadley Ferry Road and a historical marker remind visitors of the humble beginnings of a man who rose to greatness.
Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson came into the world on January 31, 1919. His first home was a sharecropper’s house where he lived with his mother, Mallie, and his four siblings. Mallie Robinson and other citizens of the impoverished neighborhood, both white and black, worked as sharecroppers. They labored in the fields for a share of the profits from the crops.
Sharecropping was introduced into Georgia and the South at large during the Reconstruction era by the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees and Abandoned Land. Better known simply as the Freedman’s Bureau, the U.S. government agency was created to help former slaves and their families make the transition from slavery to freedom.
Sharecropping was promoted by the Bureau as a way to get farms back into production in the years after the Civil War. The economy of the South had collapsed and many landowners had little money left.
The system, however, lasted for more than 100 years and in many areas became a new form of slavery. Thousands of poor families of all races worked the land for crop shares that often did not provide enough money for them to pay off their debts or survive for another year. Unable to meet their obligations, they had no choice but continue to work the farms for another year.
Sharecropper families often lived in deplorable conditions. As a general rule they were impoverished and hungry. Child death rates were high and they often went without healthcare or education.
Despite such a beginning, however, Jackie Robinson dreamed greater dreams. Shortly before World War II, he enrolled at UCLA, where he studied and played four sports. An impressive athlete, he was named an All American in football in 1941 an became the first African American to letter in football, baseball, basketball and track at UCLA.
Financial difficulties forced Robinson to leave UCLA after two years and he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He became a second lieutenant before facing a court martial for objecting to incidents of racial discrimination in the military. His army career ended with an honorable discharge.
When World War II ended in 1945, professional baseball in the United States was segregated. It had not always been that way. In fact, in the years after the Civil War both whites and blacks played together on professional baseball teams. But things changed in 1889 when professional baseball became a segregated sport.
Although he was one of the best athletes ever to play at UCLA, Robinson could not play in the major leagues when he finished his duty in the military. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro League, instead, and played for one year.
The Monarchs were the longest-lived of the teams of the Negro National League. The noted Hall of Famer Satchel Paige was a pitcher with the Monarchs when Jackie Robinson arrived to play shortstop. Both men went on to break the major league color barrier within three years of Robinson’s arrival in Kansas City.
Robinson’s talent could not be denied, although many thought that Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were better players. It was Jackie Robinson, however, who attracted the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers’ club president and general manager Branch Rickey.
By the end of 1945. Rickey offered Robinson a chance to break professional baseball’s color barrier. Jackie Robinson was selected in part because Rickey knew that there would be fierce opposition to the presence of black players on baseball fields. Robinson, he believed, had the strength of character to remain above the fray and not fight back against those who might seek to draw him into a confrontation.
Robinson went first to the Class AAA Montreal Royals. After playing spring games in Florida, he made his professional debut when the Royals played the Jersey City Giants on April 18, 1946. For the first time in more than 50 years, professional baseball’s color barrier had been broken.
The following year, the Brooklyn Dodgers brought Jackie Robinson up to the big leagues. He made his major league debut at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, scoring one run off a walk to help lead the Dodgers to a 5-3 victory.
Robinson initially faced opposition from some players on other teams and some fans, but he maintained his dignity and by the end of his first season, everyone knew that professional baseball was open to players of all colors. His life is the focus of the movie “42.” Order it here: 42 (with Bonus Features)
The Jackie Robinson birthplace is on Hadley Ferry Road approximately 11.5 miles south of downtown Cairo, Georgia and 22 miles north of Tallahassee, Florida. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions. It is free to visit.
Watch a preview of the movie “42” or rent the entire film here: