As a sport historian who focuses on issues of inclusion and exclusion in the twentieth century United States, Jackie Robinson often serves as a touchpoint in my scholarship. As a child I received copies of Jackie Robinson’s 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made and Rachel Robinson’s 1996 biography of her husband, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait and if I feel like being overly teleological I can argue that reading those books more than twenty-five years ago set me on my path to where I am today. Over the years, as I learned more about her, I became increasingly convinced that Rachel Robinson is a fascinating historical figure who deserves to be studied and recognized in her own right.
While working on an op-ed about Rachel Robinson’s importance as a historical figure, I became intrigued with both Robinsons’ descriptions in their books of the housing discrimination that the family encountered when they tried to move from St. Albans, Queens, to a New York City suburb after the birth of their third child in 1952, and I wanted to learn more about it. At the time, I had recently accepted a position at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, and had been told that Stamford, Connecticut, was a place where I should consider living. About seventy years earlier, Rachel had tried to buy a house around that same area, and as Rachel described it, “in the process I encountered the whole array of discriminatory practices used to exclude blacks on one pretext or other. A location in Purchase, New York, interested me, but it was taken off the market after I offered the asking price. I knew why, and I resented it deeply.” Rachel then began to focus her search in Connecticut but again faced discrimination from white real estate brokers. As she wrote in 1996, one broker “readily admitted that she had picked areas where in her judgment my children would feel ‘comfortable’. I wondered how she knew where my children would be comfortable. I suspected she meant not in her backyard.”
During this frustrating search in the fall of 1953, the Bridgeport Herald, a weekly paper that covered all of southwestern Connecticut, was running a series of articles on housing discrimination. Other topics in this series included the awful, unsafe rental conditions Puerto Rican immigrants faced and real estate brokers’ refusal to sell homes to Jewish couples in places like Greenwich, Connecticut. The journalist writing this series, who neither Rachel nor Jackie named in their books (Jackie identified the journalist only as a “newsman”), found out about the Robinson family’s experiences in Stamford and reached out to Rachel. I had long known that the Robinsons eventually ended up in Stamford and even though we didn’t end up living there, I was curious about what was in the articles.
Both Robinsons referenced the Bridgeport Herald articles in their books, but they did so without dates or any publishing information beyond the name of the newspaper. The circumstances around the articles and their impact is discussed in various capacities, such as in Louis Moore’s excellent StoryMap on Black athletes and housing discrimination, Ken Burns’ four-hour documentary biography of Jackie Robinson, and in various other articles about the Robinsons and the friends they made in Stamford among many other places, but no one cited the actual articles that eventually led to the Robinsons purchasing property and building a home in Stamford. An archivist at the Bridgeport Public Library, which houses the microfilm of the Bridgeport Herald, a newspaper which has not been digitized, told me that no one, including Burns’ researchers, had been able to find the articles. I knew the articles had to exist, so off I went to the microfilm room at the main branch of the Bridgeport Public Library, where I found them.
On November 1, 1953, the Bridgeport Herald ran an article with the headline “No. Stamford Nixes Jackie Robinsons” that quoted Rachel extensively. She relayed that the real estate brokers she found listed in the New York Times “either told us there was nothing available [in Stamford] or that we wouldn’t be happy [there]” and explained that the brokers “have a lot of evasive ways to make you understand you are not wanted, and while you can’t really pin them down to straight racial discrimination, it certainly exists.” Somewhat charitably, Rachel Robinson argued that “the trouble is that brokers are afraid they might hurt their business if they did business with us.” The author of the article, however, closed by connecting what the Robinsons experienced in Stamford to other cases he had examined in Greenwich and noted that “the constitution and by-laws of the Greenwich [Real Estate] Board prevent members from selling or renting to ‘any race or nationality’ that would tend to ‘bring down real estate values’. They were identified as ‘Jews, Italians and Negroes’ by brokers who shift the blame for discrimination to property-owning ‘bigots’.”
A week later, the Herald followed up, noting that “the NAACP is anxious to have the Robinsons try their luck in [North] Stamford again and not to relinquish their search for a suitable home in the area” and that “a small group of No. Stamford residents is being organized in an effort to break the barriers of racial discrimination” in the area.1 That group included several local clergy as well as Stamford residents Richard Simon (cofounder of Simon and Schuster Publishing) and his wife Andrea, (their daughter, the singer Carly Simon, was only a child and therefore not an active participant in the group) and they invited Rachel to the Simons’ home to discuss the issue. On November 22, 1953, the clergymen in the group preached to their congregations in opposition to housing discrimination and in favor of a petition supporting the Robinsons’ potential move to the area. Andrea Simon decided that she would accompany Rachel on future house tours to ensure the Robinsons were shown all available properties.2
By the end of the second week of December, the Robinsons had found a plot they loved, a builder they were excited to work with, and had settled on a price for the land and the construction. The Herald reported that “Mrs. Robinson expressed ‘deep gratitude’ to the Herald for bringing to light the racial barriers thrown up in their unceasing efforts to find a suitable home” and quoted her saying that the “enthusiasm and genuine sincerity” of the group of concerned residents “impressed us greatly in deciding to take the house.” The paper also wrote that the real estate broker who showed Rachel the property, Rose Nakian, said “she expects to be threatened with ‘blackballing’ by the local Real Estate Board.”3
When the Robinsons returned to Stamford in early January to formally close on the property, the Herald’s photographers were there waiting. Despite the success of the Robinsons’ breakthrough strategy against housing discrimination, the photographs and their captions point to more insidious problems that make relegating housing discrimination to the dustbin of history nearly impossible. One of the photographs showed Jackie Robinson shaking hands with uniformed white police officer Harry King in what the paper described as an “impromptu” welcome. The other showed Jackie holding a car door for Rachel as “John F. Ward, local private eye, who [was] just checking up on the Dodgers’ chances,” watches intently. Maybe the police officer was a big baseball fan and couldn’t bear to miss the opportunity to meet one of his sporting heroes; maybe the white private eye was hired to uncover evidence of real estate brokers violating the Constitutional prohibition on restrictive covenants, but somehow, I doubt those were their primary motivations. The Robinsons might have been able to buy property, but the implications of the photographs were clear: law enforcement and the white power structure would always have their eye on them.
Although the Robinsons continued to receive support from some members of the community—notably from the Simons who let the Robinsons live in their house in Stamford when construction on the Robinsons’ home was not done by the beginning of the 1955-1956 school year—Rachel wrote that “several families on the block sold their home” after their purchase became final and noted that the family was rejected from joining a nearby country club. Moreover, as readers of this blog likely know, housing discrimination is nefarious and adaptable and victimizes people across the financial spectrum including university professors who are literally experts on the topic .The Robinsons’ move to Stamford was hardly the end of the story of housing discrimination.