Until today, neither of us had ever heard of Eroseanna Robinson, who should be on stamps and statues and college curricula.
Who was she?
We found her in an article by Amira Rose Davis for Zora, Medium’s forum for posts and thoughts by and about people of color. Davis looks first at Robinson’s refusal to stand for the national anthem at the 1959 Pan-American Games in Chicago, 60 years ago.
As the U.S. national anthem started to play, the crowd inside Soldier Field rose to its feet in excitement. But high jumper Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson stayed sitting. The track and field athlete was not here for the bloated displays of American greatness. To her, the anthem and the flag represented war, injustice, and hypocrisy.
Robinson’s decision, 60 years ago, was the forerunner of many meaningful protests by Black athletes, including Colin Kaepernick’s very similar decision to “take a knee” in 2016. Kaepernick may or may not have known about Robinson’s refusal to stand; he was certainly picking up her legacy. We hope he will be more widely remembered for his bravery than she is for hers: in 1959 (before the Civil Rights Movement caught fire, before the Voting Rights Act began to change the country). She was going against an unchallenged white supremacy to a degree difficult to imagine in 2019.
Once Davis goes into Robinson’s biography, however, we can hardly be surprised at this one act of bravery:
When Robinson moved to Cleveland to work in a community center, she started to get heavily involved with their local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). By 1952, she was a leader within the small chapter and led a direct-action protest at a segregated skating rink. Historian Victoria Wolcott writes about the Skateland protest in her book, Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America, where she details the fact that Robinson led “skate-ins” on multiple nights and used her skating skills to forcibly integrate the popular skating rink. In the rink, Robinson drew the bulk of the attention and animosity of the White patrons and eventually even sustained a broken arm from the abuse.
The pattern of determined bravery continues:
… just six months after sitting for the anthem at the Pan Am Games, Robinson was arrested on charges of tax evasion over the amount of $386. When brought before the judge, she refused to pay, citing the U.S. government’s propensity for violence and war. “If I pay income tax, I am participating in that destruction,” Robinson said. The judge sentenced her to a year and a day in jail. While in jail, Robinson engaged in a hunger strike refusing to eat or drink. She became so weak that they had to carry her in and out of the courtroom and attempted to feed her intravenously. Her hunger strike garnered national attention as hundreds of protesters and letters of support poured in to support the “athlete wasting away in prison.”
She remained an activist until her death in 1976, and went on at least one more hunger strike, when she and friends were turned away from a segregated restaurant in Maryland.
Davis’s post also follows some important history of protest by Black athletes, including some historic analysis of its patterns. It’s all important, and it’s all worth reading. But before you dive in, just take some time to remember and appreciate Rose Robinson’s courage, conviction, and steadfastness.
Say her name.