Strolling in Pasadena last week, soaking up southern California sunshine, I happened on a pair of nine-foot-tall bronze sculptures across from City Hall. I knew of baseball legend Jackie Robinson but not his older brother, Mack (right).
Born to Georgia sharecroppers, the boys grew up in Pasadena. Mack set junior college records in track and field. After local businessmen paid his train fare to the trials in New York, Mack became one of eighteen Black athletes on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in Berlin. He broke the previous Olympic record in the men’s 200-meter event, finishing just four-tenths of a second behind Jesse Owens. He said of his silver medal, “It’s not too bad to be second best in the world at what you’re doing.”
Mack came home to little acclaim. “If anybody in Pasadena was proud of me, other than my family and close friends, they never showed it,” he said. He campaigned for neighborhood improvement and supported his family by sweeping Pasadena streets. That job ended when the city fired its Black workers, allegedly in reprisal for a court order to desegregate public pools.
Popular history highlights a few big names and tends to forget the rest. Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens deserve their fame in the annals of athletics and race. I’m glad Olympic medalist Mack Robinson is finally getting some recognition too, at least in his hometown.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.