This Sunday is Jackie Robinson’s birthday. The first African American player to integrate major league baseball was honored Friday at a school assembly in Hyde Park. One of the speakers was a veteran Red Sox player who experienced much of the same racism that Robinson faced.
Tommy Harper was four years old when Jackie Robinson first took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Fifteen years later, when Harper made his own major league debut in 1962, he says he realized the inner strength it took Robinson to achieve what he did.
“Because I went through some of the same things that Jackie Robinson went through, but I had teammates," Harper said. "I, at least, had a teammate. One African American teammate. I had one teammate because that’s all they would allow on each team. Two African American players on each team."
As the first black player, Robinson was all by himself. Harper was speaking to the predominantly black and Latino students of New Mission High School in Hyde Park. He told them about hearing racist taunts from the bleachers as he played outfield, including at Fenway, and even how he was treated by his own team. He described a road trip to Florida early in his career when he was playing with the Cincinnati Reds.
“After the game, management treated the white players to steak dinners at a nice restaurant," he said. "They gave us taxi fare to go across town to eat at an African American restaurant. And then told us what time to be back."
The event in honor of Jackie Robinson’s birthday came in the same week that Boston Latin High School students complained about a hostile racial atmosphere at the school. Harper alluded to that, saying things have improved since he was a player.
“But what we learned this week in the schools here, right here in Boston, the laws have changed, but some attitudes have not," Harper said.
And he urged the students to meet racism and intolerance the way Jackie Robinson did – with perseverance.
“Jackie Robinson went through all of these things, all the barriers that were put in front of him. You know where he ended up? In the Hall of Fame.”
Junior Stefon Golden says he sees racism today in economic differences.
“I don’t think it’s as bad today as it was then," said Golden. "But there’s still definitively opportunities and advantages that we don’t have compared to other schools that aren’t in the city, or don’t have as big of an African American population or Latino population."
Senior Natalia Phillip didn’t know much about Jackie Robinson before the event, but she says the lesson of his story and the message from Tommy Harper was clear.
“When you face all these challenges you have to know where you’re coming from, know where you want to go and keep focused on that so you don’t get distracted by any negative comments or things that want to pull you away from your dream," Phillip said.
It’s a lesson that Jackie Robinson, who would have been 97 years old this Sunday, would probably be pleased he’s still teaching.