Jackie Robinson: No. 42 Was No. 1 – On the Field and Off
Visitors to New York City’s Jackie Robinson Museum could be forgiven for thinking that the museum, which opened in the fall of 2022, 50 years after Robinson’s death, would focus exclusively on his career in sports. Before breaking racial barriers by being the first Black player in Major League Baseball, the groundbreaking and gifted athlete lettered in four sports at UCLA (basketball, football, track and field, and baseball) and was a standout player in the Negro Leagues and for the Minor League’s Montreal Royals.
They might be surprised at the considerable focus given to Robinson’s groundbreaking actions beyond baseball. The exhibit “Jackie the Businessman” highlights Robinson’s roles as owner of a clothing store in Harlem, where Black customers could shop with dignity and an expectation of respect, and as a real estate developer and construction company owner, two endeavors he undertook while still playing for the Dodgers.
Robinson became the first Black officer-level executive at a major American corporation as the vice president of personnel with coffee company Chock Full o’Nuts, a Civil Rights pioneer, and perhaps most notably, co-founder and chairman of Freedom Bank.
According to his son, David Robinson, these ventures were “his continuation of a role of trying to achieve social development for the African-American community, and for America as a nation,” David told Forbes. “There’s really no separation between his objectives in baseball and his objectives in his further life, in politics and business.”
TOP OF THE 10th INNING
After leaving baseball in 1957, where Robinson wore jersey No. 42 for 10 years playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, there were no further opportunities for him in baseball. Unlike many of his white peers, he wasn’t offered a job in coaching. Though he had launched “The Jackie Robinson Radio Show” in 1948, under contract with New York’s WMCA, and had signed a deal with WNBC in 1952 to direct community affairs, he was looking to do more, which is when Chock Full o’Nuts offer percolated. In fact, the offer from the coffee giant may have stopped Robinson from ending his career as a Giant, as talk of a trade to the New York team (which would relocate to San Francisco in 1958) was making the rounds. Also after his retirement, Robinson started writing a nationally syndicated column in 1959 for the New York Post, at the time a liberal paper under owner/editor Dorothy Schiff.
Given that Chock Full o’Nuts had a large Black workforce, Robinson’s appointment was more than symbolic. He was known to visit stores, franchises, bakeries, and roasting facilities, and more than once, he used his influence to help workers with personal issues. However, his stint with the coffee company would sour somewhat. Despite his boss’s support of Robinson’s work with the NAACP, Robinson wasn’t happy that one of his roles at Chock Full o’Nuts was to discourage attempts at unionism. That put him at odds with much of the workforce, whose admiration and support was important to him.
THE “FREEDOM” TRAIL
Robinson’s foray into banking was somewhat inspired by a quote from Malcolm X, with whom Robinson would often spar on civil rights issues. Robinson wrote in his autobiography that a “most impressive” quote by Malcolm X encapsulated his reasons for owning businesses.
“Referring to some college students who were fighting to be served in Jim Crow restaurants, Malcolm said he wanted not only the cup of coffee but also the cup and saucer, the counter, the store and the land on which the restaurant stood,” wrote Robinson. And Robinson, for his part, “…believed Blacks ought to become producers, manufacturers, developers and creators of businesses, providers of jobs.”
He saw starting a Black-owned bank, the Freedom Bank, as a way to help Blacks achieve greater financial security. To be considered a Black-owned bank, a financial institution must serve minority communities and be at least 51% Black-owned, according to the Urban Institute. Freedom Bank, with Robinson as chairman and businessman William R. Hudgins as president, opened at 275 W. 125th St. – the heart of Black Harlem – in 1964.
In keeping with the mission of Black-owned banks, Freedom Bank “provided financing and other support for African Americans who [were] discriminated against by mainstream banks,” according to a timeline of Robinson’s life at the Jackie Robinson Museum.
According to his widow, Rachel Robinson, Freedom Bank was “probably one of his major post-baseball achievements,” she said in video that can be seen at the museum.
“It meant a lot to Jack to be able to bring that kind of economic development tool into Harlem, because people could get mortgages, small businesses could begin to get loans,” she said. “And there were just so many ramifications of that, that he agonized over that bank. Oh, did he agonize over it. Anything that he thought was going wrong worried him because it was important for them to succeed in that.”
In fact, Robinson faced numerous obstacles with the bank. Local residents, having never seen the promise made years earlier that a Rockefeller-backed bank would end up in the hands of black owners come to fruition, were suspicious at the outset. However, that suspicion disappeared when Freedom’s commitment to the community was made clear with loans made to individuals and businesses in Harlem. “The growth of Freedom also did much to ease the problem New York City blacks have had for years in getting mortgage credit,” Robinson wrote. However, many of the loans, by his own admission, were less than prudent, having been made with “the heart.”
Freedom Bank would close in 1990, 18 years after Robinson’s death. At the time of its closing, the bank was the fourth-largest Black-owned bank in the country with $101.9 million in assets, according to Knight-Ridder News Service. Then New York City Mayor David Dinkins said at the time, “Since its founding in 1964, Freedom has served as the financial backbone of the Harlem community at a time when few other institutions showed much interest in doing business there.”
Today, “42” – the number Robinson proudly wore for his entire Major League career – has been retired across all teams in Major League Baseball. And there are currently 42 Black-owned banks in the United States. Jackie Robinson has truly left his mark in baseball, banking, and beyond.