At age 97, “Papa Ray” Robinson has a unique perspective on Black history in America.
One of the few surviving “buffalo soldiers” from World War II, Robinson is a grandson of freed slaves who lived to see a Black man elected president of the United States.
Now he says he’s witnessing another twist in the fabric of American history, a politically charged backlash led by white supremacists. Robinson said he’s confident that this historical pendulum swing is temporary, but he doesn’t expect to survive it.
“These are very troubling times,” Robinson said Tuesday, in an interview at the Encinitas home of his daughter, Donna Marie Robinson. “I’m afraid I’ll pass from this Earth before anything changes. But I do believe things will get better. I have to believe that.”
Robinson will talk about his life on Thursday evening at the American Legion Post 416 in Encinitas. The event will raise money to renovate and expand the 84-year-old veterans center. Ralph Bettencourt, who is heading up the “Save Our Legion” campaign, will host the Q&A discussion, which is the fifth in a series of “living history” presentations at the post.
“Ray Robinson is one of the finest human beings I have had the privilege to know,” Bettencourt said. “The grandson of freed slaves, he served his country at time when Blacks were considered less than whites in this country. He did so with honor and pride. Ray, by upbringing, is an optimist.”
For one month every winter, Robinson and his wife of 53 years, Lottie, visit their daughter in Encinitas to temporarily escape the frigid weather in their hometown of Plymouth, Minn. Although he walks a lot slower than he used to, Robinson’s wit and memories remain razor-sharp. As always, he starts each day before dawn watching MSNBC cable news and reading at least two daily newspapers. He’s an avowed buff on politics, history, sports and jazz music and a great lover of conversation.
“Ray never met a stranger,” said Lottie, his wife. “He’s always been a people person. I’ll send him to the store for something and he’s gone for an hour because he always meets his new best friend wherever he goes.”
Robinson doesn’t shy away from talking about the election of Donald Trump or the rising tide of racism in this country. He said the seeds of hate were germinated during the Civil War and the recent outbreak is just the latest bloom.
“Vestiges of that mentality still remain today,” he said. “The grandsons, the great-grandsons … of those plantation owners, they’re still alive.”
Robinson never met his own grandparents, but he knows their story. They were young slaves on an Alabama plantation when Abraham Lincoln — Robinson’s favorite president — signed the Emancipation Proclamation. They stayed on in Alabama after the war, but their son Benjamin, born in October 1891, hopped a freight train west when he turned 17.
“The South was a brutal place during the Reconstruction era. You couldn’t imagine the brutality. He had to get out,” Robinson said.
After working in a turpentine mill in Mississippi and on a sugarcane farm in Louisiana, “Benny” ended up an oil worker in Baytown, Texas. That’s where he met his future wife and they had 12 children. Ray was the fifth child, born on Jan. 5, 1920. Like his father before him, Ray had the gift of gab and an inextinguishable supply of optimism.
He was 9 years old when the Depression hit and his father’s wages were cut by a third to 50 cents an hour. Times were tough, but they improved under Franklin D. Roosevelt (Robinson’s second favorite president), whose Civilian Conservation Corps work program provided Robinson with his first paycheck at age 18. Two years later, he told his parents he wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army.
“My mom raised a whole bunch of sand,” he said. “She said ‘why fight for a country that’s not fighting for you?’ I told her I believed things were going to get better.”
In August 1940, he joined the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The nickname was coined in the late 1800s by Indian tribes who compared the curly hair of Black soldiers to the coats of bison. Robinson became a firearms trainer, teaching a growing flood of young Black recruits at bases in in North Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia. In 1942, Robinson’s division boarded the S.S. Columbia, a French luxury liner, bound for Italy. He remembers a constant roar of explosions as the ship pulled into port at Livorno.
Robinson earned three Bronze Stars in a long series of major battles in Italy, from Rome to the Po Valley to the North Apennines. His best friend Henry was cut in two by German machine gun fire but he avoided major injuries, at least visible ones.
“When we were crossing the Arno, the firing was all around me,” he recalled. “It was the most horrible sound hearing those bullets hitting bodies. I might not have physical scars but there are mental scars forever.”
Robinson said serving overseas in a segregated unit was a positive and bonding experience, but returning home to the U.S. was a harsh wake-up call.
“I could fight for my country, but if I wanted a hamburger I had to go around to the back door to buy it,” he said. “I had bad racial memories but after meeting my wife, it toned the ugliness down.”
The couple met at a jazz club in Chicago in 1964, where he’d moved after a few years working as a dining car waiter on the railroads. He spent many years with the U.S. Postal Service in Chicago, then moved his wife and daughters, Donna Marie and Rhonda, to Texas, where he built a home on family property near Houston. In 1995, the Robinsons relocated to Minnesota to be near Rhonda and her family.
Although Robinson officially retired in his early 60s, he missed the daily interaction with the public, so he kept working at various jobs well into his 90s. He served as a driver for famed Texas newspaperman Fred Hartman, stocked shelves at Costco and Sam’s Club. And most recently, he volunteered for five years at a VA hospital in Minneapolis. Because he could no longer drive, he took a bus and two trains to reach the hospital each day.
“He believed that the young men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan deserved to be treated with respect and comforted,” Donna Marie said.
Robinson is proud of his service, but they’re bittersweet memories. He was given the nickname “Papa Ray” years ago because he’s one of the last surviving WWII veterans at his VFW post. These days he looks at war as a waste of lives and a destructive cycle that man can’t seem to escape. He feels the same way about racism.
“I’m an old man now in the twilight of his years,” he said. “What we’re looking at now I thought would’ve been behind us. I don’t know where we’re going from here but it’s disturbing to me.”
Ray Robinson was a guest on “Conversations with Al McFarlane, which aired on Nov. 6 on KFAI-FM. The broadcast is available online at www.kfai.org/conversationswithalmcfarlane.