Every April, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on the anniversary of his first official game as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947. Yet, interestingly, Robinson actually played his inaugural game on an integrated professional team a year earlier. Right here in Florida. Exactly 75 years ago March 17.
And it might never have happened if not for the legendary educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
In 1946, Robinson reported to the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Florida after being signed during the offseason by Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey. While Rickey enthusiastically welcomed the first African-American player to the big leagues, many in the baseball world did not.
In fact, during that spring training, a number of Dodger players threatened to sit out, saying they wouldn’t play on a team that included Robinson. And several Florida cities refused to let a game involving Robinson be played on their fields.
But one Florida city — Daytona Beach — stepped up to the plate and told the Dodgers that Robinson would be welcome there. And on March 17, 1946, Jackie Robinson played his first professional game as a member of the Dodgers’ organization (at the Daytona field that now bears his name).
It may surprise some people that Daytona Beach — a town best known today for holding NASCAR’s premier event — played host to Robinson’s first pro baseball game.
But it shouldn’t. Because long before Daytona Beach became associated with stock car races, an African-American woman founded a school there that grew into what is today Bethune-Cookman University.
And that woman, Mary McLeod Bethune, not only had a profound influence on the students who attended her school, but she also had a profound influence on race relations in Daytona Beach. As sportswriter Wendell Smith noted at the time, Daytona Beach’s “healthy racial atmosphere can be attributed to the excellent work done by the faithful and energetic Mary McLeod Bethune.”
Daytona would “probably be a city of prejudiced barriers,” Smith added, “without Mrs. Bethune and her college.”
Robinson reached once, stole a base, and scored a run in that fateful first game. And Bethune provided the food for Jackie’s celebratory post-game meal with his wife, Rachel, after another momentous game.
Later this year, a statue of Bethune will be placed in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. It will be one of two representing the state of Florida (replacing an old Confederate War general, fittingly). While Bethune’s statue no doubt will become a sight for Floridians to see when they visit Washington, Florida’s schoolchildren should not have to travel all the way to D.C. to learn about Bethune.
That’s why the James Madison Institute has long supported naming a K-12 school choice scholarship program after Bethune. We think doing this would help elevate Bethune’s story in the public consciousness. And it also would serve as a subtle reminder that as our scholarships expand to include new populations, we continue to prioritize economically-needy students (whom Bethune served so faithfully) and to be inclusive of families looking for a faith-based education (like the one Bethune’s school provided).