COMPTON — When Jesse Robinson was a young man establishing himself in Watts during the 1930s, it is unlikely the people of neighboring Compton could envision the day when their city would name a park after him.
"The Compton Ku Klux Klan used to ride out in full regalia on horses and line up on the south side of Imperial Highway," Robinson recalled recently. "That was their way of telling the blacks in Watts that this was as far as you can come."
But Robinson, his wife, Myrtle, and their daughter, Elizabeth, did move to Compton in 1952. And in October of this year, a small park at the corner of Alameda Street and the Artesia (91) Freeway was renamed for him.
Compton is a city where opinions and emotions run deep. Few civic leaders are universally loved. But if anyone comes close, it is this optimistic and sprightly 75-year-old former Compton College track star.
"Jesse Robinson is one of the greatest guys around," Councilman Maxcy D. Filer said. "In every way--civic, humanitarian, philanthropic--he's the best. Jesse's the type of guy you can debate with, even argue with, and when he leaves the room that's the end of it."
Councilman Floyd A. James, who often disagrees with Filer on political matters, is in complete accord when it comes to Robinson. He said Robinson got him his first job, that of a temporary Christmas employee with the post office.
Active in Many Fields
"He has been very instrumental in all aspects of the community," James said.
Robinson retired from the U. S. Postal Service in 1967, having risen from a substitute worker to superintendent of training for Los Angeles County. He founded the local Enterprise Savings & Loan Assn. and is board chairman. He established the Compton chapter of the NAACP. He was the first black chairman of the Los Angeles County Grand Jury.
Robinson was a six-year member of the old Compton High School District Board of Trustees. He has been active in a variety of youth sports, as well as the Salvation Army and the United Way. He was a track and field official at the 1984 Olympics. He writes a sports column for a local weekly newspaper. The list goes on and on.
Robinson, an only child, was born in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1912. His father left when he was 5 and he spent much of his childhood being shuttled throughout the South among his mother's sisters.
At 12, Robinson and his mother moved to Watts. She found work as a Beverly Hills domestic and young Jesse was often in tow.
"The difference between me and the kids of Compton today is that they don't get a chance to see successful people," Robinson said. "My mother worked for some of the wealthiest people in Beverly Hills and I got to see what the good life is like, but I also saw that there is a price to pay. While I was eating in the kitchen, I would listen to the people eating in the dining room. Instead of talking about other things, they would talk about business."
He organized the Compton's Hometown Hero program to set an example for young people. The program salutes Compton residents and natives for the success they have had in their careers. One person is selected each week and his story is publicized throughout the city's schools.
"We're identifying these people and feeding this back to the young people by saying these are your neighbors--the guy who owns the corner business, the man sitting across from you in church," Robinson said.
His involvement with youth sports, Robinson says, stems from his own experience as a man who grew up without his father. He admits it is nothing profound, but he believes that young people must be kept busy or they will find trouble.
Music Prevented Mischief
As a teen-ager, Robinson became an accomplished musician and later played professionally. He credits that and his running ability with keeping him from becoming someone "who should be in San Quentin."
"When I was 15 years old, my mother bought me a saxophone," Robinson said. "Learning to play that thing took up all of my time. I bought a clarinet with my own money. That took up time. When I went to Manual Arts High School, the track coach saw me beating everybody when I was running around the track, so he asked me to go out for the team. You can't be running track, getting your grades, blowing the horn and still be doing (illegal) things."
"Heck, I never smoked or drank until I was 30," Robinson chuckled.
Ran His Way Into College
His prowess as a runner in the quarter-mile and half-mile events got him recruited to Compton College--"an oasis in a desert of prejudice"--in 1931, and later UCLA.
When he brought his family here in the early 1950s, Compton was in a state of flux. Upwardly mobile blacks had begun to move into what had been a predominantly white community. Rather than accept their new neighbors, some whites fled. Others became militant, and cross burnings and other acts of vandalism occurred, Robinson said.