Crowd gathers at Jackie Robinson's old Montreal apartment to hail baseball great
MONTREAL - The U.S. government paid tribute to its northern neighbour on Monday for contributing to the end of segregation in baseball and, with that, to the greater history of American civil rights.
American diplomats and Canadian officials gathered Monday to unveil a plaque at the Montreal home where Jackie Robinson lived in the summer of 1946 as he prepared to break baseball's infamous colour barrier.
Robinson was embraced by the locals in his one season with the minor-league Montreal Royals, in his final stop before moving on to the major leagues the following year.
The U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, cast the events of that summer in broader historical terms.
Jacobson reminded an audience gathered outside that he was there on behalf of an African-African president _ something that would have been unthinkable 65 years ago.
He called the Robinson story an important step in America's journey from Jim Crow to Barack Obama.
"On behalf of the president of the United States and on behalf of the American people, I want to thank the people of Montreal for what you did _ not only for the Robinsons, and not only for baseball, but for all of the American people and all of the people of North America,'' Jacobson said.
Several dozen onlookers gathered to watch the ceremony from a snowy sidewalk on a wet, miserable day. Officials placed a gold-coloured plaque at the front of the duplex apartment building.
The street apparently hasn't changed much from when Robinson lived there. Its tree-dotted road is lined with pre-war two- and three-storey apartment buildings and small patches of lawn in front.
Most have the trademark outdoor staircases, something Jackie Robinson's daughter Sharon said she'd never seen before she came to the street for the first time on Monday.
Traffic was restricted during the event, attended by American diplomats, Montreal's mayor, and Robinson's daughter. The ceremony was timed to coincide with Black History Month.
A letter was read from Robinson's widow _ he died in 1972 _ which explained why the couple was so appreciative of the welcome in Canada.
The letter, read by Lee McClenny, the U.S. consul general in Montreal, said Robinson and his wife had been shaken by their experiences in the south and didn't know what to expect in Montreal.
"In the end, Montreal was the perfect place for Jack to get his start,'' Robinson's widow wrote. "We never had a threatening or unpleasant experience there, the people were so welcoming and saw Jack as a player and more importantly as a man.''
In an interview, Rachel Robinson, now 88, characterized the home as a refuge for the newlywed couple, a place where her husband would find solace after enduring abuse on the road.
They arrived there after facing racism at every turn during spring training in Florida: on whites-only flights, in hotels, in restaurants and at ballparks. In some cities, they were chased out of town.
But in Montreal, Rachel Robinson said, women would give her ration coupons and help her sew maternity clothes. Neighbourhood children would help her carry the groceries home.
She said the couple never had a proper honeymoon and that the time in Montreal felt like one.
Their daughter, Sharon Robinson, told reporters outside the home Monday that it felt special to finally visit a place she had only heard about from her parents.
"My mother and father had such positive memories about their time in Montreal,'' she said.
"It was a place they could come after being on the road in the south where there was so much hatred expressed. To come and have love and respect in a community was very important to them.''
The U.S. ambassador used the Robinsons' story to drive home a point about the countries' intertwined history.
"In some places in my country he was treated shamefully,'' Jacobson said.
"But the people in this house, and the people in this neighbourhood, and the people in Montreal, were much better. They showed us the way. They gave all of us hope. They gave all of us renewal.
"And through the bravery of Jackie Robinson and so many others through the years, my country has changed and changed for the better. I stand here as the representative of an African-American president of the United States. And I would day sare that in the summer of 1946, if somebody stood up here on this porch and said that that was going to happen someday, that everyone would have laughed.
"But what happened here was, quite frankly, a very important step on that journey.''