Grateful American Book Prize

Jackie Robinson’s daughter recalls becoming a teen during civil rights movement in memoir

Sharon Robinson said she didn’t love history when she was growing up, so winning an award for chronicling her first year as a teenager during the civil rights movement was a bit of a surprise.

“I don’t love learning dates and battles,” said Robinson, the daughter of iconic baseball player Jackie Robinson. “I love putting things in context and so that is what I have always done with children whether I am writing historical fiction or totally non-fiction. I try to put it within context. One of the things I like about writing is you get to study a period of time.”

Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era. When the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him, they heralded the end of racial segregation in professional baseball that had relegated Black players to the Negro leagues since the 1880s. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Sharon Robinson, who has worked with Major League Baseball for the past 25 years doing educational programming, said the children’s book is her recollection of events that impacted her and her family. Her memoir reveals her tempestuous 13th year, living the fluctuating fortunes of the civil rights movement.

“I wanted to share with kids today a portion of the civil rights movement which I thought was powerful and life-changing,” she said. “It changed me, and I wanted to kids to know that the struggle is ongoing and that even though that movement ended, the struggles continue today. It is offshoots of those struggles and racism continues to resurface in different ways.

“I want them to realize that protest is an important part of the change,” she said. “It can be peaceful, but it has to be persistent and ongoing. We changed laws, but we didn’t change attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs. That is a much harder thing to change and we still haven’t gotten to the heart of the problem.”

A major part of her book is the relationship between her father and family who were close friends with Martin Luther King Jr. The Robinson family hosted fundraisers at their Connecticut home back in the day.

Robinson said she was inspired to write the book with Scholastic due to a “combination of factors.”

“I turned 13 in 1963,” she said. “That made it a landmark year, but it was also a pivotal year for the country and the civil rights movement. Just think, the day after I turned 13, George Wallace, the newly elected governor of Alabama, proclaimed: ‘Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ I will never forget those words or the chill they sent through my body. To me, George Wallace had declared war. There were many poignant moments to follow that I felt compelled to share with children today.

“When I received the (Grateful American Book Prize) award, it was an affirmation that not only my work but all of the people who do tremendous research when they write a historical book,” Robinson said. “Not only are you reading it to kids, but you also have to break it down.”

She also cited the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham on May 2, 1963, in which they witnessed kids her age marching peacefully and being thrown down, their clothes tattered by the force of fire hoses.

“Children were singing songs of freedom as they are led to jail,” she recalled. “My family attended the March on Washington in August and planned and hosted a jazz concert, the first of many fundraisers for the movement, at our home in Connecticut. That was the year I began to find my voice amidst turmoil at home and in the world.

“Children today are being asked to stand up against bullies, racism and poverty,” she said. “I hoped to inspire them by sharing my personal story and telling it within the context of history.”

She said not only was her father a tremendous athlete, but he also did so much for the civil rights movement.

“I grew up with my dad more of an activist than a baseball player,” she said. “Not only was he a great athlete, but he was also an activist, author, speaker, fundraiser for the civil rights movement, son, husband and father. I was proud to share the complexity and lifelong commitment of the man and delighted to provide a glimpse into how we as a family functioned during stressful times.

“I loved baseball and that was a big part of our lives, but I wanted people to understand that was only a portion of who he was,” she said. “Acknowledging him today for what he did for the game and the country is absolutely wonderful, and important.”

Robinson said her friends enjoyed coming over to play even though they lived in an all-white community and she loved riding her horse. She was bused with her white neighbors to a black high school and said that was “weird” for her.

Robinson said it was difficult to learn of legendary baseball player Hank Aaron’s recent passing. Her family was longtime friends of the Aarons and last spent time with them in December 2019.

“Hank was a gentle giant and an activist when he had to be,” she said. “He was verbally and physically attacked for breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. I think that shocked him when that happened, and it drew him into the movement.

“He was also an amazing businessman with multiple car dealerships,” Robinson said. “He was a Renaissance man himself. It’s a big loss for the baseball world and the Hall of Fame. He was a very dear man.”

The Grateful American Book Prize is the only award for excellence in writing, storytelling and illustration for children’s historical non-fiction and fiction focused on the events and personalities that have shaped the United States since the country’s founding.

The prize, which was created by author and publisher David Bruce Smith and Dr. Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, consists of a $13,000 cash award in commemoration of the 13 original colonies. It is believed to be among the highest cash awards among book prizes in general. In addition, the winner receives a medal created by Smith’s mother, the renowned artist Clarice Smith.

“Her father’s fame provided Ms. Robinson with a privileged and sometimes prejudiced life in Connecticut, but his commitment to the civil rights movement provided her with an understanding of the importance of embracing the cause of justice,” David Bruce Smith said. “Ms. Robinson’s chronicle is not just captivating; it also transfers a historical perspective for adolescents and adults.”

She has two book contracts in the works and is forming a book club for girls through Major League Baseball.

“This is going to be a big year for girls,” Robinson said. “The Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as their new general manager (an MLB first) and we have our first woman vice president of the United States and she is a woman of color. There is so much positivity about being a girl and we are going to pull from these sources.”

By Gary Curreri for South Florida Sun Sentinel