Honoring ‘42’ comes slowly in legend’s hometown

Story highlights

Jackie Robinson was born in 1919 to sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia

For a long time, there was little recognition in Cairo of its famous native son

Robinson broke the color barrier in modern-day baseball

Some say Cairo had a tough time reconciling with an ugly past of segregation

Cairo, Georgia CNN  — 

In a scene in “42,” Jackie Robinson gazes at his newborn son in a hospital ward and vows never to be like his father.

“My daddy left us flat in Cairo, Georgia. I was only six months older than you are now.”

That’s the only mention of Cairo in the newly released biopic about the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, but the movie resonates in this small southwest Georgia city that has had a complicated relationship with its famous native son.

The movie, many in Cairo hope, will shine a new light on the city and help bring Robinson the kind of recognition he deserved here long ago.

In the film, Robinson – played by Chadwick Boseman – pronounced the city like Cairo, Egypt, the Georgia city’s namesake. Only here, folks don’t say it like that. It’s KAY-row.

Most here seem willing to forgive that Hollywood faux-pas since Robinson himself might have mispronounced it. After all, he was only a toddler when he left Cairo for good.

After his father, Jerry, abandoned the family, his mother, Mallie, found herself doing the work of two people on the Sasser Plantation. A short while later, Mallie boarded the Number 58 train with her five children and moved across the continent to be closer to her brother in Pasadena, California – an act of enormous courage for a black woman in the early 1920s.

Robinson, the son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves, never walked the streets of Cairo. Not like Olympic gold medalist Teresa Edwards, who shot hoops on the courts at Holder Park.

It’s one reason, say some residents, that the city has struggled to embrace Robinson.

Others suspect race had a lot to do with it. This was the Deep South, and Cairo was not unlike other places that struggled to reconcile with the past – one that was so ugly that Robinson probably never would have made a career in baseball had he grown up here.

Had he stayed, he might have ended up a sharecropper himself. Instead, he grew up in a world far away from Jim Crow, attending integrated schools in California and becoming a star athlete at UCLA.

Schools weren’t integrated in Cairo until 1970. When there was a proposal to rename Second Avenue in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., there was push-back, recalls attorney Tom Lehman, 67, who moved here four decades ago from Ohio.

The local newspaper, The Cairo Messenger, recognized Robinson on the 30th anniversary of his entry into the major leagues in a short story that reminded readers he was born in Cairo. But other than that, the memory of Jackie Robinson wore thin.

For decades, there were no monuments or placards or anything, really, that signaled the city was the birthplace of an extraordinary man. You could drive through town without knowing Robinson was ever here.

A woman on a mission

Linda Walden wanted to fix that.

She grew up in Queens, New York, and Sebring, Florida, but after she finished medical school at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, she moved south to Cairo.

It’s a city best known as once being the capital of cane syrup production. The high school mascot is a syrupmaker.

Walden’s roots were here; her father’s family owned land nestled along tree-lined country roads.

She arrived in 1996, one year before the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s feat. Jackie was family.

Walden’s aunt had married Jackie’s brother, Mack Robinson, who’d also made his mark in the world of sports. He won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but was overshadowed by Jesse Owens and later by his own pioneering brother.

Jackie Robinson, born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, broke the Major League color barrier in 1947.

It felt right for Walden to settle in Cairo, though it was a shock.

“It was like going back 30 years in time,” she said.

When she opened her medical practice in a shopping center on MLK Jr. Avenue, she became the first woman and the first African-American to do so. Even today, she’s still the only full-time black doctor in the area.

“I had to remind some of my patients that it was not Miss Linda but Dr. Walden,” she said.

Soon after she established her practice, someone planted a sign on her property calling her the N-word.

She received a phone call asking for a donation of $1,000 to the fire department. She politely told them she couldn’t make such a large donation.

All she heard on the other end was the N-word.

“God bless you,” she replied, holding her anger. Maybe it was something Robinson inspired in her. It was his courage to not fight back when he was met with hatred that helped him win over a racist mindset, as the movie shows.

About a month later, Walden got a letter of apology in the mail.

“We have good people here – both black and white,” she said. “But change has been very slow.”

Walden, 56, made it her mission to preserve Robinson’s legacy in Cairo. To resurrect his name. To inspire a new generation of kids. In 1997, she founded the Jackie Robinson Cairo Memorial Institute to raise money for her mission. She eventually started a Jackie Robinson essay contest for Cairo students.

The same year, she succeeded in getting the county to rename a 10-mile stretch of Georgia Highway 93 as the Jackie Robinson Memorial Highway. She launched a campaign to have the Georgia Historical Society place a marker at the site of the 150-year-old tin-roofed wooden house on Hadley Ferry Road where Robinson was born. In 2002, Walden got a sign placed, but by then the house had burned down and all that was left was a brick chimney.

She proposed the county erect a monument of Robinson in front of the Grady County Courthouse in downtown Cairo. She even sought out a sculptor from Tallahassee – just across the Florida state line – who presented the county commission with a life-size cardboard depiction of how the bronze statue might look. She felt a statue would serve as a landmark for Cairo and help draw tourists.

But that didn’t happen.

Lehman, the attorney, said it might have been a matter of money. Walden said she was told the land outside the courthouse was not appropriate for memorials to athletes. There’s a memorial to veterans of foreign wars. After Walden’s request went nowhere, the county erected a stone monument honoring the Sons of the Confederacy. A small rebel flag flutters at its side.

“I wanted it to be a tourist attraction,” Walden said. “They saw it as a black man on the courthouse lawn.

“When I first started, there were more excuses than anything else. They said, ‘Why are we honoring someone who didn’t grow up here?’ It was stunning that someone as great as Jackie Robinson would be treated this way.”

But Walden was determined. It didn’t matter to her that Robinson didn’t grow up in Cairo. It’s been said he only returned once, after he’d made it as a Brooklyn Dodger. The black people in town threw him a parade.

Walden refused to stop dreaming. She envisioned a multimillion-dollar multicultural center and museum named after Robinson. She even thought about constructing a baseball field good enough to bring spring training to Cairo.

“He won’t be forgotten here,” she said.

The movie and the man

“42” isn’t playing yet at the old Zebulon theater in downtown Cairo. The theater can only screen reel-to-reel films and has asked Warner Brothers to send them the movie in that format.

Jack Hadley, 77, went to the Gateway Cinema 7 in nearby Thomasville to see the biopic of his relative. Hadley is Walden’s uncle; his sister Delano married Mack Robinson.

A chill came over Hadley as he watched the celluloid depiction of the first black player in modern-day baseball. On screen, black people in the stadium cheered, while hatred spewed from whites, even from Robinson’s fellow Dodgers, who signed a petition to get him thrown off the team.

The movie is particularly poignant in a scene in which Phillies manager Ben Chapman hurls verbal abuse – the N-word – at Robinson every time he is up for bat. Robinson doesn’t say a word. Instead, after his last at-bat, he runs into the dugout, down the stairs and shatters his bat against the wall.

Hadley marveled at Robinson’s restraint.

“I was thinking, ‘Could I take it like Jackie did?’” he said.

Hadley, an Army veteran, began collecting black history items a long time ago and finally opened a museum in Thomasville, the only one of its kind in southwest Georgia. He has 3,200 pieces on the wall now – photographs, signs, posters, dolls, old uniforms. There’s a Jackie Robinson section that includes a laminated copy of a front page story of Robinson’s early days. It’s from the Pittsburgh Courier, the most widely circulated black newspaper at the time.

“My niece, Dr. Walden, tried her best to get them to understand they’re sitting on a goldmine with Jackie Robinson,” he said. “For some reason, Cairo didn’t think too much of it.”

Hadley is hoping the movie will reinvigorate interest in Robinson. Kids around these parts need that kind of towering figure to inspire them.

Cairo has about 10,000 people; 48% are black. The average household income here is $28,755. Many kids are growing up in single-parent homes.

“I’m hoping this movie can show them they can make it,” Hadley said.

The timing of the movie coincided with another effort by the city of Cairo, one of the first not initiated by Walden. This year, the city renamed its Boys and Girls Club after Jackie Robinson, and there’s now a ball field in his honor at Holder Park, where the club is located.

On a Wednesday afternoon, the club fills up right after school gets out. Some of the kids are only 6. Others are about to enter high school. They do homework in a room called “Breaking Barriers” before they run outside to play.

Charles Renaud, 49, one of the club’s founders and a former county commissioner, said the movie served as a catalyst but that the effort to rename the club had been in the making for a long time.

He believes there’s no use in dwelling in the past. Just embrace the present.

“Make no mistake about it. We have issues,” he said. “But let’s learn from the past and move forward. Let’s pick a greater good and work for the kids.”

He acknowledged Walden’s longtime campaign to honor Robinson. The Boys and Girls Club, he said, brings new perspective.

“Give me six years, when our kids start going through the system,” he said. “There will be a child who will say the Jackie Robinson Boys and Girls Club kept them out of trouble.”

Last month, Robinson’s daughter Sharon joined her relatives Walden and Hadley for a gala event in Cairo to raise money for the club.

Pamela Grigg, director of the downtown library who also served on the board of the Boys and Girls Club, said the dinner was a huge deal for Cairo. She could tell that some people there felt some embarrassment that it had taken so long for the community to come together behind Jackie Robinson.

County Commissioner T.D. David said he’d never seen so many people join together for a community purpose.

“It’s proper recognition that’s come very late,” he said, “but it’s very sincere.”

Walden said she hopes the community is finally coming around.

“In the end it’s not about me. It’s not about Jackie. It’s about what they had in their hearts.”

Lehman, the attorney, said Robinson’s name will shine in Cairo. Even among people whose grandparents might have once run Robinson out of town.