Robert Robinson sought to escape American racism by moving to the USSR. He found more of the same. Then, the USSR refused to let him leave.
Robert Robinson was born in Jamaica in 1907, but grew up in Cuba. Robinson and his mother eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan where he became a toolmaker for Ford Motor Company.
A cousin of one of Robinson’s friends had recently been lynched in the South. The Great Depression was looming and the black employees were surely going to be the first to get fired. So, when a Soviet delegation showed up in 1930 offering one-year contracts promising a free apartment and a car, Robinson signed on. To a 23-year old black man in 1930, the idea of USSR was probably quite compelling.
Robinson arrived in Stalingrad on July 4, 1930 to work in a tractor factory. That idea of escaping racial prejudice was quickly destroyed. Soon after his arrival, a fellow employee said of Robinson, ““There is a colored fellow in our crowd who just came in. Whoever had a nerve to hire him and send him here had very little brains for you can imagine what a life he will live over here being the only one.” This co-worker was one of the Americans working at the factory.
On July 24th, Robinson was beaten by two white American co-workers. Soviets used this attack to “highlight” differences between the racism of the United States and the “worker’s paradise” that was the Soviet Union. The attack on Robinson became more propaganda for the USSR to use against the United States causing some in the U.S. to fear that black Americans would be drawn to communism.
Robinson became popular in Russia due to the high profile nature of the trial against his two assailants. He was even elected to the Moscow soviet. His popularity caused many in the American press to distrust Robinson.
Robinson also earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. His status plus his expertise made him essential to the Soviet Union; in short, he was stuck.
Every year, he applied for a vacation visa and was denied. He was forced to renounce his American citizenship. After 44 years, he was allowed to visit Uganda. Once in Uganda, he appealed for asylum which was granted. Eventually, he returned to the United States.
He died in 1994 in Washington, DC.
Why he’s been forgotten: I can only assume that Cold War rhetoric in the United States soured the public towards Robert Robinson. I imagine that his return in the late 1970s was met with a decent amount of distrust.
Read more about Robert Robinson.
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Photo— Flickr/ Matthew Hickey