Jackie Robinson earned acclaim right from 1941 when he became the first athlete in the history of UCLA to earn a letter in four different sports in the same year – basketball, football, track and baseball. After being drafted into the Army, he was discharged in 1945. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Negro League before eventually becoming the first Black player in major league baseball.
Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated every April to remember when he officially broke the major league color line after playing his first official game as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947. But a year earlier, Robinson had in fact played his inaugural game on an integrated professional team on March 17, according to a report by TCPalm. That game may not have been possible without the efforts of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
Robinson made it to the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Florida in 1946 after Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey signed him during the offseason. At the time, leaders in baseball were unwilling to welcome Black players but Rickey did.
TC Palm reports that during that spring training, some Dodger players threatened not to participate while raising concerns about playing on a team that had a Black player. Scores of Florida cities also declined to offer their fields for a game involving Robinson. But Daytona Beach welcomed Robinson, eventually hosting Robinson’s first pro baseball game. On March 17, 1946, Robinson played his first professional game as a member of the Dodgers’ organization at the Daytona field that is now named after him.
Racism was rife in the U.S. at the time but Daytona became a safe space for Robinson because of the work and influence of Bethune.
Bethune, born to former slaves in South Carolina, had in 1904 opened a boarding school in Florida to teach young women who also desired to have an education. The Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls was the only school of its kind that catered to African-American women on the East Coast, according to this report. The school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1929, the report added.
Besides heading a school, she also became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women to advocate for racial and gender equality. Bethune was also very good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. “She was an adviser to four presidents — that’s unheard of. I don’t know that any other person has been able to do that since that time, but she did it,” Dr. Tasha Youmans, dean of Bethune-Cookman university library, said of Bethune to AccuWeather.
Indeed, Bethune was very influential. And she used that influence to bring racial understanding to Daytona Beach, paving the way for Robinson to break the color barrier. Daytona Beach would probably be a city of prejudiced barriers without Bethune and her college, sportswriter Wendell Smith said at the time, according to TC Palm.
After that first Robinson game, Bethune provided the food for the celebratory post-game meal with his wife, Rachel, TC Palm added.
Bethune would go on to champion democratic values until her death of a heart attack on May 18, 1955, at the age of 79. Decades after her death, she made history on Wednesday as the first Black person to have a state-commissioned statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall when her statue replaced that of a Confederate general.