MONTREAL (AP) — After a spring training in the segregated South, newlywed Rachel Robinson went to look at an apartment in a white neighborhood in Montreal. A French-Canadian woman who spoke English welcomed her to the home.
“She received me so pleasantly,” Jackie Robinson’s widow recalled. “Then she poured tea for me and agreed to rent the apartment to me furnished and she insisted I use her things — like her linens and her china. It was an extraordinary welcome to Canada.”
The quaint Montreal duplex that served as sanctuary to the Robinsons during the early part of his struggle to break baseball’s racial barrier is being recognized by the U.S. government. That chapter in American civil rights will be celebrated Monday when U.S. diplomats unveil a commemorative plaque at the apartment the couple called home in the summer of 1946.
The event will be attended by the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Montreal’s mayor and Robinson’s daughter as part of Black History Month.
Not too far from the house, Robinson made history at old Delorimier Stadium, thrilling fans of the minor league Montreal Royals for one season in his final stop before joining the majors the next year with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
His wife remembers the home fondly and considers the residence on de Gaspe Avenue a critical part of their story.
It was in that lower-level duplex apartment on a quiet street that their new marriage blossomed, and Robinson found refuge from the taunts he often endured during road trips.
“You can’t make (enough) of the house because it’s where the experiment started and the experiment went on to be a national success, so it led to something,” Rachel Robinson told The Canadian Press. “What was nourished there in that house … had widespread influence in our society.”
Robinson, now 88, recalls arriving in Montreal after having survived the Jim Crow South during spring training in Florida.
There they were met with racism at every turn: on whites-only flights, in hotels and restaurants and ballparks. In some cities, they were chased out of town.
The couple was twice bumped off airplanes while trying to get to Daytona. When they arrived, Jackie Robinson wasn’t allowed to stay with teammates at their hotel.
The team didn’t have a spring training facility of its own and many opponents wouldn’t allow them into theirs. Robinson was forced to leave one town. In Jacksonville, the stadium was locked on game day.
“To appreciate how special the experience was in Canada, you have to think about the experience we had in the South going to spring training,” Rachel Robinson said.
The couple initially felt some trepidation heading north to postwar Montreal, with its housing shortages. It had never occurred to the Robinsons to look for a black neighborhood in Montreal. The Royals had provided a list of homes — all in predominantly white areas at a time when the black community made up about 2 percent of Montreal’s population.
Robinson said they were more focused on the professional task than on neighborhood demographics.
“We didn’t consider it or think about it — in an experimental situation like that, you have to stay focused on what’s before you,” Robinson told the CP. “We were not looking for black people. We had found an apartment, which was the most important thing, in a supportive, friendly neighborhood.”
It was far different on road trips, where Jackie Robinson would be the target of slurs and attacks just about everywhere.
“The home was critical,” she said. “Because we never knew what was going to happen outside our home.”
De Gaspe Avenue was predominantly French, but language didn’t stop Rachel Robinson from making friends, especially when it became clear she was pregnant. The women would give her ration coupons and help sew maternity clothes.
A couple with eight children lived above the Robinsons. While Rachel couldn’t speak to them, she’d leave them a bowl of fruit on the porch.
“The children had to come down and pass my kitchen door to go to school, so I used to put fruit out just to attract them and they’d stop by on their way,” she said.
The children would reciprocate, rushing down the street to help her with her grocery bags as she walked home.
“Little things (like) that turn into big pieces of your experience,” Robinson said. “They were friendly, they were protective, they were supportive and it was not something that I’d have expected.”
The Robinsons formed a strong and lasting friendship with famed Montreal sports writer Sam Maltin and his wife, Belle. They would invite them to their home and take them to concerts on Mount Royal.
Rachel Robinson was a fixture at the Montreal stadium, never missing a home game. She also recalls roaming the narrow, European-style streets of the city’s old district, finding spots that suited her love of books and music, especially when Jackie was on the road.
The city caught baseball fever that summer. With Robinson hitting .349 batting and stealing 40 bases, the Royals won the Little World Series, beating the Kentucky Colonels.
Afterward, a jubilant crowd chased Robinson down the street. That’s when Maltin penned the famous phrase: “It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind.”
The couple soon left Montreal. A few months later, Jackie Robinson was a Dodger.
The couple never had a proper honeymoon after marrying in February 1946.
“It showed what we could do if we learned how to exercise tolerance and sharing and all those good things,” Rachel Robinson said. “So I would say that coming to Montreal at that time in our lives and the kind of reception we got — that was our honeymoon.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.