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September 23, 2017

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Family’s encounter with racism recalled

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

The Robinsons keep rising from the ashes.

Thomas "Tom" Cordell Robinson came from a prosperous Sumter County, Ala., land-owning family known for their blue eyes and their hard work. Tom and his wife, Laura, had 14 children who helped them on their farm.

According to the 1900 U.S. Census, Tom Robinson was born in Alabama in January 1875. Laura was born in Alabama in November of the same year, and by 1900 the couple had been married seven years, since about 1893.

Life in Emelle, Ala., was good for the Robinson family. But only until July 4, 1930.

On that day, a dispute over a $3.50 car battery arose between Tom's son Esau and a storeowner, Clarence Boyd. When it was over two days later, Esau Robinson's lynched body hung from a tree. You see, the blue-eyed, land-owning Robinson family was black.

The 1930 killings on the fourth and fifth of July totaled two white men, three black men and a pregnant black woman. Tom's brother, preacher John Newton Robinson, was shot and killed on his front porch in Emelle when he wouldn't surrender his rifle to a white mob. But before he died, John Newton Robinson held off the mob so his wife, his son, his sister-in-law and his nephew Bryant could flee out the back door. They got out just before the mob poured gasoline on the house and burned it to the ground.

Robinson family members scattered as the mob tracked them with bloodhounds, determined to "wipe out the seed of the Robinsons." Some white Emelle residents shielded the fleeing family. Fifteen-year-old Bryant Robinson (son of Tom Robinson, brother of Esau Robinson and nephew of John Newton Robinson) and his mother, Laura, eventually found safety in Mississippi.

Tom Robinson turned himself in. He was tried and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for killing Clarence Boyd's uncle, Grover Boyd. However, a 1933 report states that Tom Robinson's "overt acts … consisted only of being drunk and picking up a stick to hit Clarence Boyd."

Robinson's sentence was later commuted to life; he spent nine years in prison before his release. No whites were arrested. (See "Arthur Franklin Raper, The Tragedy of Lynching" (1933; reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 59-84, and National Public Radio, "The 'Last Lynching': How Far Have We Come.")

Young Bryant Robinson met and married Louise Lyones in Mississippi. He supported his family by moving to Mobile to work in the shipyards. There he was active in the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ. A fellow church member transferred to Westover Air Force Base near Springfield, Mass., and convinced his pastor there to send Robinson a one-way bus ticket to Springfield. When Bryant Robinson arrived in Springfield in 1944, he worked as a parking lot attendant. Robinson's wife and four children joined him a few months later and the family became active in the church.

Bishop C.H. Mason directed Elder Bryant Robinson to open a new church in Springfield and, in 1950, Elder Robinson established the Macedonia Church of God in Christ. In 1966, Elder Robinson was ordained a bishop in COGIC, and in 1977 he founded and pastored a second church, First Church of God in Christ in nearby Fitchburg.

Bishop Bryant Robinson's son, Bryant Jr., followed in his father's footsteps and was blessed to co-pastor the two Massachusetts churches with his father until the senior Robinson passed in 2001. The younger Bryant Robinson earned his Ph.D. in education and served as a teacher and a principal; he was also assistant, deputy, and interim superintendent of schools in Springfield. Like his father, Bryant Robinson Jr. was named a COGIC bishop in 2002. He now presides over the Greater Massachusetts Jurisdiction. And, like his father, he will have to rise from the ashes.

On Nov. 5, 2008, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., grandson of Tom Robinson, watched his church burn to the ground just hours after Barack Obama was declared president-elect. (See "Arson seen in post-election fire at black church in Springfield," the Boston Globe, Nov. 8, 2008.)

The 2008 arson fire in Springfield made national news, like the 1930 fire in Emelle did. But to Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., this fire is different: "He'll turn this to our good; God is blessing us and He will make us a blessing." Amen, Bishop Robinson.

Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2360 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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