Robert Petersen hosts and produces the podcast The Hidden History of Los Angeles, and shares it with Off-Ramp.
In Pasadena, in a little park across Garfield Avenue from the iconic City Hall, the sun is shining on a huge statue of a man’s head. This bronze went up in 1997, decades later than it should have. The man it represents is part of LA’s hidden history.
At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens crushed Hitler’s Aryan dreams. But look closely. The runner who took silver in the 200-meter sprint was also a black American. He was Mack Robinson, from Pasadena.
Pasadena was incorporated in 1886, and as long as it’s been a city, it’s had a black community. There were black political clubs in the late 1890s, and in 1902, a black paper, The Enterprise. In 1909, when congregants of Pasadena’s first black church began building a new church, there were threats to burn it down, so they took turns standing guard at night with rifles.
In 1914, the city opened a whites-only swimming pool, called Brookside Plunge. After black protests, they allowed blacks to use it once a week. Then the city drained it and refilled it with fresh water.
This is the Pasadena that Mack Robinson and his family found when they arrived from Georgia in 1920.
Deserted by her husband and providing for five children, Mack’s mother worked as a maid, and by 1923 saved enough money to buy a home. But the home was in a white neighborhood. Some neighbors proposed buying them out, but Mack’s sister later recalled the plan died out when a white resident declared that the Robinsons were good neighbors.
In the early 1930s, Mack Robinson went to Muir High School, but didn’t take part in sports right away because of a heart problem. His mother signed a waiver, and Mack persevered, helping Muir win the state championship in 1934.
Mack had one year at Pasadena Junior College — now PCC — before he won a regional Olympic qualifying. But it seemed unlikely that Mack would even make it to the final trials, because they were in New York. Mack recalled, “No one paid an athlete’s way in those days. The trials were in New York, and Pasadena Junior College didn’t have any money to send me. And I didn’t have a dime to make a trip like that on my own.”
A group of Pasadena businessmen stepped in and raised the money, and this unknown kid from Pasadena knocked out pre-race favorites Foy Draper of USC and 1932 silver medalist Ralph Metcalfe to secure a spot for the 1936 Olympics.
“After I made the team, " Mack said, "I thought I’d get at least a pair of new shoes, or some coaching. But I was ignored. The coaches all hung around Owens and the USC guys because their coach was one of the team coaches. The only coaches I’d ever had, Al Walton and Otto Anderson, were back home in Pasadena.”
On race day in Berlin, Mack found himself in front of thousands of Germans, and just 15 feet from Adolf Hitler. In the 200-meter, Mack finished less than a half second behind Jesse Owens. And it’s even more impressive given the fact that Mack was wearing old worn down spikes — the same shoes he’d worn all season long in junior college in Pasadena. Jesse Owens was wearing brand new spikes from Adidas, in the first sponsorship for a male black athlete.
Said Mack, “Jesse got the coaching. I didn’t. I saw his television program, about his return to Berlin. He said that he and his coaches studied the styles of every runner… I always thought if I’d had some help I could have beaten Jesse, or made it even closer than it was.”
After Mack won his silver medal, you’d think Pasadena would have welcomed its new hero. Gold medalist Jesse Owens got a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan and $10,000 in cash. The winner of the bronze was recognized as a hero in the Netherlands, where he was honored across the nation as the “best sprinter of the white race.”
But Mack? “If anybody in Pasadena was proud of me, other than my family and close friends, they never showed it. I was totally ignored – the way I was ignored in Berlin – when I got home. The only time I got noticed was when somebody asked me if I’d race against a horse during an assembly at school.”
Mack won national collegiate and Amateur Athletic Union track titles at the University of Oregon, but quit school to go home and support his family. He got a job with the City of Pasadena as a street sweeper and later dug ditches and sewer lines. Many — like Mack’s wife Delano — were surprised Mack wasn’t offered a more prestigious job with the city.
“I really believe that if he were a white silver medalist coming home from Germany," Delano said, "he wouldn’t be digging ditches or asphalt. He would not be getting pennies for that type of job.”
Mack sometimes swept the streets in his Olympic sweatshirt, his silver medal around his neck.
During this time, Pasadena’s blacks pushed for and won some civil rights victories, but some allege the city retaliated by firing black employees, including Mack.
In 1970, Pasadena earned the dubious distinction of being the first non-Southern city ordered to desegregate its schools. And Pasadena’s public schools are where Mack Robinson found his true calling. He became a truant officer at Muir and an activist against blight and crime in northwest Pasadena. An LA Times article from 1983 referred to Mack as a “crusader for law, order, decency, small children, good neighborhoods and good government.”
For example, Mack went after a local liquor store where neighbors were being accosted. He stopped a den of gambling and prostitution, and led a crusade to fix streets, sidewalks and gutters. Mack could often be seen at Pasadena Board of City Directors meetings. “I’m a thorn in their side," he said. "I’m a squeaky wheel that gets the grease, but what I’m trying to get is lubricant for a lifetime.”
The 1980s saw Pasadena get its first black mayor and Rose Queen, and Mack finally began to receive some recognition for his athletic accomplishments. In 1984, he helped carry the Olympic flag into the LA Coliseum for the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics.
Mack’s legacy was cemented in Pasadena when, in 1997, the city honored him with this nine-foot-high bronze sculpture in Centennial Square. He died at 85 in 2000, the same year a post office and PCC’s stadium were named after him.
His statue spends half its time in shadow, just as he was overshadowed by Jesse Owens in 1936, by Pasadena’s discriminatory policies when he got back home, and by the man whose statue is next to his in this little park across from City Hall … Mack Robinson’s brother, Jackie Robinson.