PIONEERING BLACK JOURNALIST
DIES AT AGE 88
Born in Dallas Texas in 1926, LOUIE ROBINSON defied the odds of a time when America denied the existence of Black excellence, let alone the tools with which a Black writer could emerge to chronicle such things.
Robinson not only showcased some of the nation’s most famous symbols of Black achievement, he exposed their humanity in such a way that readers might see themselves in the stars.
Sidney Poitier was first interviewed by Robinson in 1955, before the Bahamian born actor was well-known. But he had been cast in the film Blackboard Jungle by a major studio, which made him newsworthy to Black readers. “We were to meet at MGM and trying to figure out how we would recognize each other,” Robinson said in a recent interview, “ then it hit us: if you’re there, you are one Black man. I will be the other one.
Poitier describes the passing of the writer who became a friend and collaborator as a major loss.
“Never in my life have I known a better man. His life was an experience that will leave behind memories of major importance. In his life from which many humane experiences have arisen to the benefit of so many of his fellow human beings, he has always stood strong and he has always reached out to those in need”
When he joined Johnson Publishing Company in the late 50’s, the timing was just right for a self-taught newspaper man looking to open the world like a book. Black stars were emerging on stage and screen, in sports, politics and business – and demanding equal access and attention. After Robinson was promoted to West Coast Editor of Ebony Magazine in 1960, his stories graced the covers for the next 30 years. He fulfilled a passion and worked to fill a void he first noticed as a child growing up in Mineral Wells Texas. In his yet unpublished memoirs, Robinson writes about what was missing at the time:
“I listened to the radio, read newspapers, witnessed life as presented in the movies, and in time studied American civics, not yet quite realizing that these were devoted to the White version of America, and that the Blacks I did not hear or see or read about in all this were the Blacks whose existence most of America did not truly wish to recognize.”
Known for his engaging writing style, integrity and a passion for facts instead of gossip, ROBINSON won the respect of those he covered over the years, His articles profiled the struggles and triumphs related to making it big in a system intent on keeping Black people small. Sammy Davis Jr. was a member of the storied Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, but while he performed to packed houses at Las Vegas casinos, the entertainer’s Caucasian valet still had to place his bets for him. No Blacks were allowed at the gaming tables.
Many of the people Robinson wrote about became lifelong friends, including Davis, singer Nancy Wilson, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, comedians Nipsey Russell and Bill Cosby, baseball pioneer Curt Flood and, most notably, actor Sidney Poitier with whom he helped organize two books nearly 30 years apart: This Life (1980), and Life Beyond Measure (2008). Robinson also wrote the first book on Arthur Ashe, Arthur Ashe: Tennis Champion (1970) and was chosen by Maria Cole to co-author her late husband’s life story in Nat King Cole, an Intimate Biography (1971).
Robinson’s talent for writing was first nurtured by an English teacher who took note of a poem he was tinkering with. Though the Black high school in segregated Mineral Wells Texas lacked sufficient books, resources and even accreditation, he was at least able to graduate. That luxury was afforded because his grandfather, James Umphrey Wyatt, worked one of the few good jobs available to a Black man at the time – a hotel porter. That meant his grandson did not have to quit school as soon as he was ‘big enough’ to be hired labor. Education was treasured in the Wyatt household. Robinson’s mother Bessie insisted her only child learn to type, in hopes that he would land ‘inside’ work.
His typing skills set him apart when the US Army interrupted his education at Lincoln University in Missouri, the only Black college in the country with a school of journalism. Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1945 near the end of World War II. During basic training, he was assigned to a combat engineers outfit until one morning before his unit set out to their usual work of cutting down trees and digging up the stumps, the hundred or so men were asked if anyone among them could type. Robinson says he ignored the usual Army advice to never volunteer, “… it seemed to me, under the present options of going out doing manual labor in the sun or perhaps typing n the shade of an office, it was worth the risk of going against the advice. I help up my hand, as did one other trainee, Leroy May … Leroy and I never did another day’s honest work for the rest of our time in the Army.”
Because he could type, Robinson remained in administrative posts, earned several non-commissioned promotions (Black soldiers could not be officers except in the engineer corps) and became an information specialist. This marked his first job as a journalist, conveying current news to his fellow servicemen.
Robinson’s career in the Black press spanned more than a half-century. Instead of returning to college after the army, he managed the start up of a weekly paper audaciously called the Tyler Tribune in Tyler Texas. It was so successful that, after 2 years, it was purchased by a group of Black businessmen who moved the paper to Dallas where it was re-named the Dallas Morning Star.
He eventually relocated to Baltimore to work for the venerable Afro American Newspapers, before getting a call from John H. Johnson to join what would become the largest Black publishing company in the world. He would later receive an honorary degree from his Alma Mater, Lincoln University.
Robinson met and memorialized in his writing countless giants of African American achievement, from sports heroes like golfer Lee Elder (the first to play in The Masters) and basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, to titans of entertainment such as The Jackson Five, Red Foxx and Lola Falana, He also explored the complicated relationship between White audiences and the Black superstars they at once applauded and sometimes derided. When Elvis Presley topped the charts with his fusion of White hillbilly music and Black rhythm and blues, it was Robinson who tracked him down for Jet Magazine in 1957 to ask about racist comments being attributed to him. Presley denied ever saying, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” telling Robinson he would never say such a thing and that people who know him knew he would never say it. Robinson confirmed this with several Black sources and his story knocked down the rumor.
If Robinson was ever star struck, it never showed. He didn’t marvel at celebrity, only at his own good fortune to be able to do what he loved: writing. Making a living at it required him to switch from poetry to journalism, but he held onto one verse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and remarks upon it in his memoirs
The heights of great men, reached and kept,
were not attained by sudden flight.
But they, while their companions slept,
were toiling onward, through the night.
“As a man I sometimes remembered these words as I was worked late into the evening, even though I knew I was not great, nor was the work I was doing ever likely to bestow greatness upon me. “ Louie Robinson
Louie Robinson passed away at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago in October 2 days before his 89th birthday, after a long battle with heart failure. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Mati Delores, a retired career counselor, 4 of their 6 children, Toni Frazer, Michael Robinson, Robin Robinson and Stacy Robinson-Hinkhouse, son-n-law Lou Hinkhouse, 10 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and 5 great great grandchildren. A private memorial service is planned.
Contributions in honor of Louie Robinson are invited to go to the Southern Poverty Law Center, donate.splcenter.org.
To acknowledge your support or contact the family, please use the email LouieRobinsonLegacy@gmail.com.