Several students asked the Occidental Grill restaurant to hang a portrait of baseball star Jackie Robinson in their entrance last month, ending a civil rights injustice from 60 years ago.
Sarah-Jo Lawrence, president of the Jackie Robinson Society at GW and star women’s basketball player, learned this semester that the restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue would not serve the baseball player and his wife Rachel during the late 1940s or early 1950s. Lawrence first heard of the incident in a class taught by sociology professor Richard Zamoff called “Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, and the American Dream.”
The Jackie Robinson Society then informed the Occidental Grill’s manager, Elijah Crayton, of the discrimination incident. Although ownership of the restaurant changed hands twice since the incident, steps were immediately taken to reconcile the past.
The Occidental now displays a picture of Jackie Robinson in the main entrance, visible and eye-catching to everyone who walks in.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that occurred, but the only way to correct that is to move forward and the only way you can do that is through communication,” Crayton said.
He acknowledged he also has felt the stresses of racism and this made him eager to help the students.
Currently, more than 2,500 pictures grace the walls of the Occidental from floor to ceiling on both levels of the building, honoring men and women who have eaten there. Jackie Robinson is the sole exception – not only did he never eat at the restaurant, but he also never went through the rigorous selection process to have his picture on the wall.
The tradition of hanging pictures first began around the time the Occidental opened in 1906. Anyone who knew the owner could invite guests, who had their pictures taken and were treated to a free meal.
Since then, an appointed selection committee convenes once a year to choose which pictures will be added to the collection. People who want their mug immortalized on these famous walls must submit a black-and-white photo of themselves with a biography. Most recently hung were pictures of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).
“What incredible courage he had,” said Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center at GW, of Jackie Robinson. “I don’t think anyone today could understand what he went through, walking through life five or six hours a day, being called every name in the book and hearing jeers about your family.”