Why you should care
Because without Jackie Robinson, there would be no Air Jordans or George Foreman grills.
The story of how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier is a familiar one. A white businessman, eager to make a splash and bolster business, recruits Robinson to join his organization. They make a handshake deal, kept under wraps for months. Finally, the announcement lands on the pages of Look magazine: Robinson is joining the coffee maker and restaurant company Chock Full o’Nuts, becoming the first black U.S. vice president of a national corporation.
Not the story you expected? While Robinson is widely celebrated for re-integrating Major League Baseball — his No. 42 is retired throughout the league — he broke nearly as much ground as a business leader. With ventures as varied as coffee, banking and construction, he paved the way for subsequent generations of athletes and entertainers of color to have multi-hyphenate careers. It’s a phenomenon that has gained renewed prominence of late, with Michael Jordan officially becoming a billionaire, according to Forbes, and rappers like Nas and Chamillionaire getting into the startup game.
Robinson came to prefer building his own businesses to climbing the corporate ladder.
By the time Jackie Robinson retired from baseball, the civil rights movement had picked up momentum. The Brown v. Board of Education case, which paved the way for integration of public schools, had been decided three years earlier, in 1954; the next year, the Montgomery bus boycott made Martin Luther King Jr. a national figure. Robinson believed business activity could bolster this social activism. In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, co-authored with Alfred Duckett, he wrote, “How much more effective our demands for a piece of the action would be if we were negotiating from the strength of our own self-reliance,” rather than asking for charity.
On the face of it, this wasn’t a radical approach — more Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Du Bois, let alone Malcolm X. Robinson’s pro-business stance also colored his politics. He stumped for Richard Nixon rather than John F. Kennedy (which he later regretted) and was a firm Rockefeller Republican, serving as one of the deputy directors of then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 presidential campaign. His politics put him at odds with more militant black leaders, including the aforementioned Malcolm X, who once accused him of being “used by the whites.” But Robinson made it clear that he was nobody’s tool. “I do not do things to please ‘white bosses’ or ‘black agitators’ unless they are the things which please me,” he shot back.
Indeed, Robinson joined Chock Full o’Nuts on the condition that he would be more than a figurehead used to goose sales. (With all due respect to Jay Z, he saw greater power in being a businessman than in being a business, man.) His new employer was already a maverick in race relations: The company had a majority-black staff, which in some quarters inspired the derisive nickname “Chock Full o’ Niggers.” As director of personnel, Robinson sought to improve training and working conditions for employees and to keep the company’s turnover rate low. He often went to bat for them personally, too: Once, he even testified in court on behalf of an employee accused of attacking a man with a knife, according to Arnold Rampersad’s 1997 Jackie Robinson: A Biography.
Yet working within the system, so to speak, had its limits. Chock Full o’Nuts was anti-union, and when employees sought to organize, Robinson was caught in the middle between their demands and the management’s desire to suppress them. Things came to a head in July 1963 when, without Robinson’s approval, the company fired six workers who attempted to form a union. Although the employees were later re-hired and allowed to unionize, the incident undermined Robinson’s authority. (Chock Full o’Nuts is no longer a stand-alone company; it’s now one of the brands of Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA. Its senior marketing manager tells OZY that much of the coffee company’s history has been lost over the years, but that they don’t question any of these details.) When Robinson’s contract expired the next year, he left to join Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.
Robinson came to prefer building his own businesses to climbing the corporate ladder. In 1964, he co-founded the Freedom National Bank in Harlem, which grew to become one of the largest black-owned banks in the U.S. (though it later succumbed, in 1990, to a series of bad investments). In 1970, with three business partners, he launched the Jackie Robinson Construction Corporation, which focused on low- to moderate-income housing developments, such as the Whitney Young Manor in Yonkers, New York. Both companies, although they eventually closed, outlasted Robinson, who died in 1972.
Robinson never became a political radical, but his entrepreneurial zeal ended up being pretty, dare we say, militant. “In addition to the economic security we could build with green power, we could use economic means to reinforce black power,” he wrote in his autobiography. It’s a lesson that’s still relevant for today’s athletes and entertainers, more of whom are taking outright stakes in businesses and in turn gaining the ear of politicos — moves straight out of No. 42’s playbook.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Robinson joined Chock Full o’Nuts in 1947. He joined in 1957.
This editorial article was originally created by OZY Media and published on OZY.com prior to, and independently of its inclusion in this JPMorgan Chase & Co. sponsored series. OZY Media claims the full rights and responsibilities of this article.
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