Last Thursday at Borough Hall, Sonya Pankey, Robinson’s granddaughter, accepted the distinction on her family’s behalf.
“My grandfather started here in Brooklyn,” Pankey said, “a place that’s very special to him.”
Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. When he was just one year old, his family moved to Pasadena, California.
He attended the University of California in Los Angeles, where he was a four-sport athlete who won varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track.
In 1942, Robinson was drafted and served in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. He was honorably discharged in November 1944.
Robinson first played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs. On April 15, 1947, he played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
He won the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, and played on six consecutive All-Star teams from 1949 through 1954. Robinson was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949.
Robinson played in six World Series, and won one with the Dodgers in 1955. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
The MLB retired his number 42 in 1997 across all major league teams. In 2004, the league also celebrated the first “Jackie Robinson Day,” where every player wears the number 42.
After his baseball career, Robinson became a baseball television analyst and was the first black vice president of Chock full o’Nuts. He also established the Freedom National Bank in Harlem.
Robinson died in 1972 in Stamford, Connecticut, and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Six months after his death, Robinson’s wife Rachel founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides college scholarships and other programs for students.
Della Britton Baeza, president and CEO of the foundation, shared last Thursday that the organization is celebrating Robinson’s 100th birthday by opening the Jackie Robinson Museum in December 2019.
The museum will be located at 1 Hudson Square in Lower Manhattan.
To preview the museum, Baeza said the foundation will be hosting a traveling exhibit throughout the country. One of the stops it’s making this year will be in Cleveland, Ohio, home of the 2019 MLB All-Star Game.
Speaking to students from PS 375 Jackie Robinson School in Crown Heights and PS 15 Jackie Robinson in Springfield Gardens, Baeza said they will learn even more about their school’s namesake by visiting the museum.
“We have already been in contact with the heads of your schools,” she said. “We will be welcoming you to the Jackie Robinson Museum as early as this time next year.”
At the “Key to Brooklyn” ceremony last Thursday, students from the two schools read aloud their own essays about Robinson. They will enter the MLB’s “Breaking Barriers” Essay Contest, which was first developed by Sharon Robinson, the baseball legend’s daughter, 22 years ago.
Thomas Brasuell, MLB’s vice president of community affairs, said the national contest will pick essay winners who exhibit nine values embodied by Robinson: citizenship, commitment, courage, determination, excellence, integrity, justice, persistence and teamwork.
Students are encouraged to write about barriers or obstacles they have faced or are still facing in their lives, and how they use those values to overcome them.
The contest is open to students in grades four through nine, and will have 10 national winners. Eight MVP winners will be awarded laptops for the student and their teacher, as well as a class set of books authored by Sharon Robinson and t-shorts.
Two Grand Prize Winners will receive not only laptops, but either a trip to the MLB All-Star Game or the MLB World Series.
The student winners will get to go down onto the field, where they will be introduced before the games.
The contest deadline is March 14.
“You guys are already ahead of the game,” Brasuell said to the students, “because you already started writing essays.”
Before the ceremony ended, Pankey shared her grandfather’s favorite quote with the students: “A life is not important except in the impact on other lives.”
“To our future leaders, continue to do your work,” Pankey said. “Work hard, live you life with purpose and reach big.”