Long before she met Jackie Robinson, and long before she stood beside him as he broke major-league baseball's color barrier, Rachel Isum regularly walked to the Exposition Park Rose Garden from her house a mile south on 36th Place in Los Angeles.
Her mother, a gourmet cook and caterer, took her to violin lessons or to the Huntington Museum in Pasadena to see classic art works. But aside from the local Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rose Garden was among the few places Zellee Isum would let Rachel go to unchaperoned.
Five Decades Later
Five decades later, Rachel Isum Robinson returned to the park this week, now a graying grandmother living in New York and representing her late husband in ceremonies across the country during this 40th anniversary year of his integration of the majors.
She had come back home to promote "Jackie Robinson: An American Journey," a traveling exhibition on his life that opens Friday at the California Afro-American Museum. But amid the displays commemorating her husband, it was memories of the Rose Garden next door that captured her imagination and rekindled thoughts of a Los Angeles at once comfortably familiar and yet distinctly different from the city she knew half a century ago.
"I loved the Rose Garden," she said wistfully as she walked along Figueroa Boulevard toward the museum. "Coming back here I get that feeling of full circle; of a life all laid out for me to understand."
Her father, she remembers, "was extremely proud of California being his native state and of being a pioneer. He transmitted that to us and I still feel that way.
"He lived in Chico before he came here and his mother and father lived in the same rented place for 40 years and when his father died, the landlord evicted his mother. That was an object lesson for him. He always said that home ownership was the only key to security."
Her family bought their home on 36th Place in 1908. Rachel Robinson recalls a white-framed cottage, in a neighborhood of blacks, whites and rapidly arriving Japanese. The house today is owned by her brother, Raymond, and she sometimes stays there on her periodic visits to Los Angeles.
There is still a "lifelong neighbor who lives two houses from us in the same house. In the next block, I went by yesterday and found the same family there as when I was an infant," she added. "My grandmother lived on 35th Street and my older brother still owns that house, although he doesn't live in it."
Robinson drove around the old neighborhood shortly after she arrived, and recalled that the mix of people worked well. Although a nearby theater required blacks to sit in the balcony and a hamburger stand next to it refused to serve blacks, she said, the Isums felt at home.
Church Was Important
"Within a two-mile radius, I had everything I needed to support my growth. The church was central to our social activities. It wasn't something where you needed to have money or any social resources. It was available to you even as a non-religious type of thing.
"I carry 36th Place in my psyche," she added. "It means . . . being secure."
When it came time to break away from that security and enter college, Robinson had few problems. A top student at nearby Manual Arts High School, she won a scholarship from a civic group and had no trouble getting into UCLA.
The few black students on campus congregated in the corridors of Kerckhoff Hall, she recalled, and that was where she first noticed a young man with a certain aura and a lot of people always hanging around him.
His name, she learned, was Jackie Robinson, and he was a four-sport letterman.
"He was big, he was broad-shouldered, he was very attractive physically, and he had pigeon toes you couldn't miss," she said.
"He was also proud of his color, which was something many of us didn't have at that age.
"Jack displayed his color by wearing white shirts. . . . There was a kind of dignity about him and a sense of purpose that attracted me. I didn't know what that was or what it was going to come to."
As her impressions became clearer, Rachel Isum's respect for Jackie Robinson grew, but she doubted that the two would ever become friends "because I was the freshman and he was the college hero."
However, she remembers arriving early at her UCLA parking lot so that she could watch for him. Too shy to approach him directly, she hoped that if she casually ran into him while walking to class, she might get to know him.
Soon afterward a mutual friend introduced the two and, according to Jackie Robinson's autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," Rachel's looks, honesty and understanding captivated him.
They began a five-year courtship, although much of it was spent apart while Jackie played football in Honolulu and served in the U.S. Army and Rachel attended nursing school in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Wanted to Get Her Diploma