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Robinson, James Herman (1907-1972) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Robinson, James Herman (1907-1972)

Historical Note:

Reverend Dr.  James H. Robinson (1907-1972), an African American Presbyterian clergyman, was the founder of Operations Crossroads Africa and a former vice president and advisor of the Peace Corps.  He became a leader in New York’s Harlem community when he established the Church of the Master and the Morningside Community Center in 1938.  In 1958, he expanded his effort for community development to Africa through Operation Crossroads Africa. During the 1960s, Robinson served as an advisor to the Peace Corps and the State Department.

James Herman Robinson was born on January 24, 1907 in Knoxville, Tennessee to Henry Robinson, a laborer, and Willie Belle Robinson, a laundress. He had two brothers, William and Walter, and three sisters, Helen, Wanda, and Delia.  In 1929, Robinson attended Western Reserve University for one year and joined St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church of Cleveland.  In 1931, he transferred to Lincoln University in Oxford Pennsylvania on a scholarship from St. Mark’s Church. In the summer of 1932, he accepted the pastorate of a small church in Beardon, Kentucky. There, he met Benjamin Azikiew, Lincoln professor and son of a Nigerian chief. Between 1932-33, F. Lorraine Miller, a biology teacher from Tonawanda, New York, befriended Robinson and donated money to him to continue his college education. He met Helen Brodie, his future first wife, at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the summer of 1932, he returned to Beardon, Kentucky to preach and help the congregation form a cooperative.  A mob eventually ran him out of town for his progressive programs.

In 1935, Robinson graduated as valedictorian from Lincoln University and enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Between 1935 and 1938, he organized a community center in Brooklyn as a part of Union’s fieldwork.  Through his work, he became senior class president and the director of the Union Theological Seminary’s Neighborhood Center.

In 1938, he graduated from Union Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. ordained him to the Christian ministry. After being ordained, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, President of Union, offered Robinson the pastorate of the church in Harlem at Morningside and 122nd Streets. That same year, he married Helen Brodie. On May 25, 1938, he opened the Church of the Master and the Morningside Community Center in Harlem with less than fifty members. He established and maintained a integrated racial policy for the church and the community center.

Throughout the 1940s, Robinson expanded his African American community development efforts with new programs that worked for racial equality.  Between 1941 and 1942, he received a gift of a farmhouse and 467 acres of land in Winchester, New Hampshire where he established an interracial summer camp for Harlem children.  At the camp, Rabbit Hollow, he recruited college students as volunteer workers and camp counselors.  Moreover, Robinson jointly sponsored the National Service and Scholarship Fund for African American Students with Felice Schwartz and worked to open the Sydenham Hospital to African American physicians and nurses. He also began ministering to armed forces personnel. In 1950, he published Road Without Turning, the Story of James H. Robinson; an Autobiography.

In 1951, he began a 42,000-mile journey throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to visit foreign students for the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Following his travels, he worked to establish foreign student exchange programs with American universities and developed the India Project at University of California, Los Angeles.

However, in 1952, the Indiana Parents Association accused him of being a “fellow traveler” and a “communist sympathizer.”  Robinson fought back with the help of friends, including Norman Thomas to Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin and he retained his support in defiance of the Department of State.  Nonetheless, he continued to resist attempts of the State Department to revoke his passport throughout 1953. In 1954, he divorced Helen Brodie Robinson.

In the summer of 1954, he travelled for three months through eleven counties and territories of Sub-Saharan Africa.  After his travels, he started a program to collect 500,000 books throughout the United States to send to Africa.  In December of 1954, he published his second book, Tomorrow is Today.  In 1955, he continued his travels and went to Europe on a brotherhood mission with the National Conference of Christians and Jews. After his travels, he spoke at the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School in April 1955. He published his lecture from the series later that year as Adventurous Preaching.

Throughout 1957, he continued to support community development in Harlem, remarried to Gertrude Cotter Thomas, and became more outspoken about African independence and foreign policy.  He appeared on “The Big Surprise,” an NBC television program and won $30,000, which he donated to the Building Fund Campaign of the Morningside Community Center.  That same year, he preached a sermon about Ghana Independence in the Washington Cathedral and spoke to the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs about his opinions and those of the Presbyterian Church about foreign policy and foreign aid programs. He also became a life member of the NAACP.

With Robinson’s growing interest in African Independence, foreign aid programs, and foreign policy, he established Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA) in 1958.  During the first year of the organization, he recruited 58 students from the United States and Canada to live and work in five African countries in the first OCA programs. In 1959, he became a member of the American Society on African Culture.  In 1960, he expanded OCA and took 183 students and 20 leaders to 10 countries in West Africa.  He established an in-service teacher training program in 1961 for several African nations and started two pilot programs in East Africa.  Through OCA, over four thousand American college students and teachers participated in programs in African countries.  Crossroaders in Africa helped build more than one hundred schools, a number of medical clinics, orphanages, village water systems, and many needed facilities.  In Liberia alone, over 1,600 teachers were involved in teacher training programs. Additionally, there were programs including secretarial training programs, medical programs involving doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, basketball and tennis clinics, and a social welfare program in Lagos, Nigeria.

In response to the growing success of OCA, he resigned as pastor of the Church of the Master in October 1961 and became more involved with foreign policy.  His decision to leave the Church of the Master was very difficult for him, especially since he saw the church grow from handful of worshippers to over 3,000 in the time he was pastor.  However, in 1961, Robert Sargent Shriver, President John F. Kennedy, and Warren W. Wiggins appealed to Robinson to give “expert advice” on for the establishment of the Peace Corps.  In 1962, he served as vice-president of the Peace Corps and joined the State Departement’s Advisory Council on African Affairs.

While he became involved with the Peace Corps and the State Department, he continued to expand on OCA programs and receive recognition for his efforts.  In August of 1962, he toured Crossroader work sites in Africa.  That same year, he received citation from Church of the Master for service to community and the fourth annual citation from the Experiment in International Living. Furthermore, he attended the National Foreign Policy Conference for Non-Governmental Organizations, began serving as a consultant on African Affairs for the United Presbyterian Church, and wrote Africa at the Crossroads.  In 1964, Robinson started the OCA publication “Crossroads Communique” and added a new dimension to OCA that started an exchange program for African youth, which brought youth leaders to the United States for an eight-week study tour during the summer. Following the creation of the program, over three hundred Africans, from thirty-seven countries, became involved in the program and visited institutions and organizations of their particular interest and participated in special projects to get to know Americans better on an informal basis.

Dr. Robinson served as executive director of Operation Crossroads Africa until his death and continued to stay involved with foreign policy and program development.  In 1965, Robinson was appointed as the Chairman of Youth Activities Committee of the International Cooperation Year at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson.  As an advisor to President Johnson, Robinson travelled to Bechuanaland and Basutoland as Special Representative of the United States for their independence ceremonies.  In 1968, he worked actively in relief programs for survivors of the Biafrian War.  Additionally, Robinson began a Caribbean program involving high school students in 1969. Through work camps similar to those conducted in Africa, the program aimed to develop greater understanding between the youth from the United States and those of the West Indies.

He died on November 6, 1972 in New York at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Sources: The papers of James Herman Robinson.
Note Author: James H. Albins

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