When Theresa Robinson moved to Milwaukee in 1953 with her husband, Alonzo, so he could start a new job as an architect for the city of Milwaukee, she swore her children and other black children would never not to be satisfied with an education in racial segregation. schools with old books.
So in 1965, Robinson and 40 other parents sued to challenge segregation in Milwaukee public schools.
The fight, which would last 14 years, finally allowed students of color who attended schools in their neighborhood to attend all-white schools.
Robinson, affectionately known as “Mama T,” died March 15 at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va. His funeral was April 2 at Albright United Methodist Church in Milwaukee.
Ironically, Robinson died on the same day – March 15 – that the desegregation case was settled in 1979, her daughter, Jean Robinson of Clifton, Va., said.
Theresa Robinson’s passion for an equitable education dates back to her own experiences in the 1940s. Then she walked eight miles round trip to attend a one-room “school house for colored people,” in racial segregation in Fairfax County, Virginia. She was often harassed by white children being driven to their schools. They shouted from car windows, calling Robinson and other black children derogatory names.
While the racism was caustic and overt, there was something even worse: separate and unequal upbringing.
Robinson’s “only colored” class was taught by a black teacher working with children in kindergarten through seventh grade. Meanwhile, the whites-only school had more teachers, new books, more activities, and better buildings.
“Mom always told us that there was no substitute for a quality education. She believed that the only way to have socio-economic success was through a good education. She fought for this all her life,” said Jean Robinson.
She was married to Wisconsin’s first black architect
Born in Chantilly, Virginia, Robinson was one of 11 siblings.
After finishing high school, she moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she would later meet and marry Alonzo, the love of her life.
The Robinsons will then have three boys and a girl: Wayne, Ronald, Kim and Jean.
The couple moved to Milwaukee after Alonzo was hired by the city of Milwaukee as the state’s first black architect. He went on to design a series of memorable buildings, including the headquarters of the Polish Association of America, the Doyne Park Shelter, the Hillcrest Nursing Home, McKinley Marina, and the Central City Development Corp.
He also designed many churches, including the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church on the north side of town.
The couple quickly acclimated to the black community in Milwaukee and joined St. James United Methodist Church, where Theresa worked and taught in both Sunday Bible and vocational schools.
The couple also worked with the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee; activist Father James Groppi; the Wisconsin NAACP; and civil rights attorney Lloyd Barbee. And they joined the fight for fair and safe housing.
“I remember my parents were both very active in wrestling,” Jean Robinson said. “We walked, and the whole family was involved.”
Living in a segregated neighborhood, Theresa wanted her children to have a chance at a better education, so she joined Barbee in the fight to desegregate the MPS, Jean Robinson said.
When the lawsuit was filed in 1965, Jean Robinson was just starting kindergarten.
In 1965, Milwaukee was extremely segregated, with nearly all blacks living on the north side of town. Things are better today, but the city is still considered one of the most segregated in the country.
When the lawsuit was filed, Jean Robinson attended Lee Street School. After school in Lee Street, she was supposed to attend Roosevelt, another all-black school, but Theresa had Jean tested to see if she would qualify for “upper ability” classes.
At the time, Hartford Avenue School on the east side of town had an “SA” program. Her principal at Lee, Frank Spicuzza, helped her get into Hartford.
“I remember every recess I played chess with Mr. Spicuzza,” she said.
Jean Robinson tested well enough to get into the majority-white school, but teachers held her back the first year to see if she could handle the classes. She could. After the first year, she was sent back to her regular class, she said.
MPS did not help with transportation.
“Not many people were happy that I was attending Hartford. Either I took the city bus or sometimes I was able to get a ride to school,” she said.
When Jean arrived in Hartford, her mother’s efforts to desegregate the MPS did not stop. Amazingly, the Robinsons have lost friends to the desegregation push, Jean Robinson said.
“Not everyone was for it. We got it. But the pressure was on equity. A school shouldn’t have all the resources while a school in the black community lacks the resources,” he said. she declared.
Former MPS superintendent Dr. Howard Fuller, who wrote his thesis on desegregation, was against the move because he felt the heaviest burden fell on black people.
“Look, I totally respect what (Theresa Robinson) and Lloyd Barbee were trying to do, but when you look at it, the whites benefited the most,” he said.
Fuller said that after gaining access to MPS financial records, he was able to track the money and see all of the dollars generated from busing black children across the city, money that he says could have been used to improve neighborhood schools.
A very long fight for justice
Robinson had no idea how long and difficult the fight was to win the case.
In fact, although she initially named each of her school-aged children as plaintiffs in the desegregation class action, only John was still a plaintiff in the end. The school board fiercely appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and by then Wayne, Ronald, and Kim had graduated and left the school system.
Although Federal Judge John Reynolds issued his decision in 1976, it was not until March 1979 that the city of Milwaukee really settled down and the MPS began to take steps to integrate its schools.
A meeting with President Obama
Besides being a fighter for education equity, Robinson was also a strong supporter of the Democratic Party and she often worked at the polls and with various organizations to get people to vote.
After a series of mini-strokes that required her to use a wheelchair, she had the chance to meet President Barack Obama in 2015 at a private dinner.
“My mom was a diva,” Jean said. “She took a picture with President Obama while she was in the wheelchair and then he asked her if she wanted to take one without the wheelchair.”
Theresa got up from the wheelchair and President Obama moved her to the side as Secret Service agents tried to help, Jean Robinson said.
“President Obama said ‘I get it’ to them, before taking a picture with mom. Then I came on stage with mom and my daughter,” she said.
In November, Theresa’s husband’s name became part of the Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building, which he designed. Alonzo Robinson died in 2000.
Jean Robinson said education was the one thing both of her parents will be remembered for.
“When we finished high school, there was no question of taking a gap year,” she said. “The only thing that was said was, ‘What college are you going to? ” she says.
In addition to Jean, Robinson is survived by Wayne Robinson of Naperville, Illinois, and Kim Robinson of Milwaukee. Her son Ronald died in 2015.