How did you get into the coffee business? What drew you to farming and coffee?
Coming up in the 1960s when African Americans were talking about inclusion and getting involved in a larger and more equitable share of the American economy; coming out of segregation and just growing up in the Robinson family where integration was a way of having the opportunity to display our talents and abilities and be fairly compensated for them; I realized that the issues in this era are now global; and as all companies and all people are seeking to develop their future, they are looking globally.
For example, cars are no longer made exclusively in Detroit. They’re outsourced. Parts are outsourced from everywhere, from China and back to Detroit.
So I had the opportunity to travel to Africa when I was a young man in the company of my mother [Rachel Robinson] at age 15; and I went back for a year at age 19; and traveled to 10 different countries on the continent so when I thought to plan my future and career, I knew that I had opportunities and was comfortable there.
I saw the beauty of Africa. I saw the wealth of Africa, the challenges and the needs and whereas other African-Americans did not have the opportunity, I thought it was good that I went to work in Africa while other African Americans stayed here and developed our economic and political position in America. So now, we have representation on the two continents. There are a number of African Americans in Ghana as well able to develop the economy between Africa and America for our benefit.
Generally, farmers are only the labor portion of the coffee business and only being paid as cheap labor. Now, we are involved in the business of coffee so we’re able to take our African resources, in terms of land and experience in growing coffee, and translate it into economic development; and even in this side in America, the marketing of coffee is also job creation and wealth creation using the African product.
I believe African Americans need to create economic development. We, ourselves, need to create economic development. Just like the founder of [Black Enterprise] saw that African Americans would buy magazines, he had to create a magazine in order to capture that economic development as opposed to Time or what have you getting all the money.
So we went to Africa to create a coffee product and create employment of African-Americans and develop an economic base.
How did you get your ideas about Black economic development?
Prior to going to Africa, I spent ten years working in cooperative housing in Harlem and certainly we’ve all easily been able to see [Black] unemployment and under-employment. Employment and economic development became global in the 1970s and 80s. And so in 1983, I saw that we could try to self-develop and create our own economy through becoming global. Of course, I wouldn’t have the same opportunities if I went to China or France or to Germany because those aren’t the places of my ancestors. But in Africa, I’m returning home and there’s an availability of opportunity on our home continent that doesn’t exist where we would be foreigners.
In the 1973-1983, I was involved in self-help cooperative housing. We started our own company called United Harlem Growth, Inc., and we bought abandoned buildings and rehabilitated them. The core of the company was 8 families from Harlem. We worked with youth in Harlem. We had job training and skills training in plumbing, electrical arts and carpentry. We worked with 30 or 40 young men in skills training but we were also building our own housing.
You’re not from Harlem though are you?
I am. I was born in New York City, but I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut. My parents moved there until I was 2 and when I was 14, then I went to boarding school in Massachusetts at Mt. Hermon. After one year at Stanford in California, I left and went to Africa for a year. I went from West to East Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana trying to look at the best country for relocation.
Then I came back to America and spent ten years in Harlem and went back to Africa for good in 1983.
Was your father, Jackie Robinson, influential in your becoming so Afrocentric and thinking so much about African-American economic empowerment?
Yes. Both his individual life and the concerns he had not only from baseball but after baseball were all about development in the African American community. So that was very much what he taught his children was important; and then growing up in the 60s during the Civil Rights Movement and coming out of the 50s and the desegregation movement; that was very much what people of my generation thought about. We weren’t so much individuals, but members of a race. Racial development was very much the agenda during the 50s and 60s.
I consider [what I do] black development, black self-development, black survival. We have been in crisis from the period of slavery to sharecropping to lack of Civil Rights; and now American blacks are in the very difficult position of being marginalized economically. We have people coming in from South America, Latin America, even from Africa assuming the lower end of labor and jobs. We have people coming in from Asia very much in the universities in sciences and math, and jobs are also being taken by machines; and then jobs are being outsourced to countries like China and India where labor is much cheaper so the African American is in a very dangerous position.
What do you remember about your father Jackie Robinson?
Growing up with Jackie Robinson, he was much more of a father figure than a baseball player because I was not old enough to be conscious of remembering him playing. But he was a strong father figure. And my mother being a strong mother figure, they gave me a tremendous foundation of both strength and desire to continue the struggle that their generation had started.
My father made a point of spending time with all of his children and we had some great quality time. So fatherhood was important to my father and all his children had that very strong foundation that was helpful in our planning of life and confronting some of the problems of life. He also had the money to put me in good schools.
He taught us that material wealth is great — it’s good to have the ability to take care of your family and house your family; but the greater objective was development of our race. We could expand beyond one’s family to development of African Americans or looking at it globally — black people across the globe which is black people in America, Africa, Latin America and South America — black people, all one people, just different branches of one family.
How old were you when your father died?
What were some of the things you remember doing with your dad?
We enjoyed playing golf. I very much enjoyed being his caddy. We had fun on the golf course. We used to love to fish. He’s taken me both ocean fishing off of Montauk, Long Island and we went up to Canada fishing. Those were great moments where it was just me and him, or me, him and my older brother or our cousins. So that was fun.
After his career in baseball, what was his daily life like?
Well, he went to work for Chock Full of Nuts, the coffee company. He was Vice President of Human Resources and then he went on to found Freedom National Bank in Harlem. He was also very active in politics and wrote a column for the New York newspapers on a weekly basis; and lent his strength and fame to the Civil Rights movement. He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King. He went out on trips to raise money. When the church was bombed and the little girls were murdered, he was down to show support and also raise money to build churches. Many churches were burnt down so my father went down to help and they created a fund of money to rebuild black churches in the South.
He also enjoyed playing tennis.