In the countryside of southwestern Georgia, roughly two miles north of the Florida border, in a small clearing of trees alongside Route 154, a brick chimney stands alone. An accompanying historical marker notes that the house that once stood there burned down in 1996. It’s all that remains of the place where one of the most important figures in American history was born.
Jackie Robinson grew up in Pasadena, Calif., where his family relocated in 1920 when he was 18 months old. He was a four-sport star at U.C.L.A. and bounced around the country in the Army. He became the first Black American to play in Major League Baseball, on April 15, 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, for whom he starred for 10 years. He was a civil rights pioneer.
But Robinson’s life began in this remote place, outside the town of Cairo in Grady County, Ga., where he was born to a family of sharecroppers. And the only way to know it driving around those country roads is the marker, which was erected in 2001.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” said W. Todd Groce, a historian who serves as the president and chief executive of the Georgia Historical Society. “There may have once been cotton fields, but it’s just pine forest now.”
Since at least February 2021, though, that marker has looked much different. It was then, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and a reckoning over race in the United States, that locals discovered that the plaque celebrating Robinson’s beginnings had been peppered with gunfire. It was the latest marker recognizing Black Americans to have been vandalized in Georgia in recent years.
But after a local effort — which came with an assist from M.L.B. — Robinson’s birth marker was the latest to be replaced. For those involved, it was a moment to remember the lives of Black Americans who had once been ignored, but who, over the past few decades, were now being better represented in the markers across the state. It was also a harrowing reminder of the violence that has been intertwined with race in America.
“It’s terrible,” said Linda Walden, Robinson’s third cousin. “This should not be happening. Why do something like that? It just doesn’t make sense. It’s really sad in this year and time. Look, our people came here in 1619 and we have endured so much, our ancestors, and to come to now, 2022, and you still have a mess like this going on? It’s sad. It’s very sad, but I pray for these people.”
When Walden set up her medical practice in Cairo in 1996, she was the first female physician in town. When she treated children, she would ask them if they knew about Robinson. Many of them didn’t — and she vowed to honor her relative’s legacy in a town that hadn’t.
She founded the Jackie Robinson Cairo Memorial Institute, pushed to get a 10-mile stretch of Georgia Highway 93 renamed after him, and, after she asked her family where exactly Robinson was born, applied for a historical marker. Though Robinson spent little time in Cairo — his mother moved the family to California to be with her brothers when Robinson’s father abandoned them — Walden said Robinson is a native son of Georgia and that these are his humble beginnings.
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“I felt it was necessary that these young people need to know that great people come from little rural areas of Georgia, like Jackie Robinson,” she said. “And I wanted them to be proud of where they come from. And I want them to emulate him and carry on to be leaders and people of greatness.”
Walden was, of course, saddened when she learned of the defacing of the marker, which sits on a property she owns.
Groce said the Georgia Historical Society, the nonprofit that manages the markers around the state, received a phone call alerting it to the damage.
The historical society notified the police and sent one of its staff members to investigate. And indeed, Groce said, Robinson’s marker had been hit with what appeared to be shotgun pellets and a few pistol rounds. He noticed a concentration of damage around the words “Negro American” and “baseball’s color barrier.”
“At first, you’re shocked and disappointed, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s happened again,’” he said.
Five months earlier, a marker in honor of Mary Turner was shot up in Lowndes County in southern Georgia. Turner, a Black woman who was eight months pregnant at the time of her death, publicly denounced her husband’s lynching and was then brutally killed by a mob in 1918. That was just the latest instance of vandalism of Turner’s marker and this time, Groce said, the damage was so bad that “it looked like a sieve.”
“They had blown holes all the way through it,” he said.
Also in 2020, Groce said, a marker at a church established in 1854 for enslaved people — the Flat Rock African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, just south of Atlanta — was shot, as was the church’s front door.
When the Georgia Historical Society took over the marker program from the state in 1998, Groce said 2,000 markers were already up, most of them connected to the confederacy and the Civil War. Since then, the group has added 500, he said, with an eye toward underrepresented groups such as Black Americans and women.
“We’ve been committed to telling the full story of Georgia’s past, taking this sort of unblinking look and realizing that we’ve got to tell all the stories — the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.
Of the 2,500 markers throughout the state, Groce said that very few had been damaged — but of those that were, the majority honored Black Americans. Groce said that the three defaced Black American markers were in less-populated areas, and thus there were no witnesses. He said the historical society had no leads on any culprits in the defacing of the Robinson marker.
“There’s something about using gunfire on historical markers telling stories about Black people that leads you to believe that it wasn’t simply just a coincidence,” he said.
Later, he added: “The association of guns and violence against African Americans in this country is one of the things that’s been going on for a long time. And so the fact that they shot these markers using guns was a signal that was being sent in some way.”
(The Grady County Sheriff’s Office didn’t return a message seeking comment.)
Recasting and installing new markers costs thousands of dollars. Knowing the 2021 All-Star Game was coming to suburban Atlanta (before it was relocated to Denver over Georgia’s voting laws), Groce said the historical society contacted M.L.B. about partnering on a new Robinson marker. M.L.B. donated $40,000, he said, which covered not only the cost of a new aluminum birthplace marker, but also the addition of a second one — at the Roddenbery Memorial Library in downtown Cairo, a more trafficked area that directs people to the birth site 13 miles south — and established a fund for their upkeep.
April Brown, M.L.B.’s vice president of social responsibility, said the effort will exist in perpetuity because “we want to make sure it’s something that stands forever.”
“Sometimes people do look at things as, ‘Oh, it’s just a physical signage,’” she said. “But what it represents is how we can empower the community and audiences around social justice, and to empower and lift up those who fought for rights for all.”
Brown called the defacing of Robinson’s marker and the others “incredibly heartbreaking.” But she also sees it as an opportunity to call attention to the fact that vandalism directed at minorities is still happening.
“It’s still an indication of how much further our country needs to go,” she said. “It’s very unfortunate that whoever the individual or individuals were, they felt they needed to take it out on something that’s so iconic and for a man who left such a legacy in baseball and in America.”
The new Robinson markers were installed by local authorities on Wednesday. Local politicians, M.L.B. representatives from New York, Groce and Walden, among others, gathered at the public library on Friday morning to rededicate both markers. (A new Turner marker was already installed and rededicated in December.)
The vandalized Robinson marker was expected to go to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., Groce said. The plan is for the defaced Turner marker to eventually end up at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. The hope is that they will serve as reminders that the ugliness of America’s past persists to this day.
“As a result of it being replaced, this is a new beginning for people, and hopefully we get it right,” Walden said of her cousin’s birthplace marker. “Let’s do what needs to be done. Treat your neighbor like you would treat yourself.”