By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
part 1 of 2
"I have received your letter and one from your unfortunate boy. I am very sorry for you."
Over the past 120 years the paper has yellowed with age and the ink has faded to a light brown that is barely legible. The author, Miss L.M. Swenson of New York City, wrote the letter to one of her former slaves, Judy Jones, counseling the woman how to go about trying to obtain a pardon for her son, L.W. Robinson.
Swenson urged Jones to write a petition to the governor of Texas, where Robinson had been convicted of killing a white man. He had gone to town one morning in 1871 to sell his cotton. As a colored, he was forced to wait until the end of the day--after all the white farmers had been taken care of. And even then, one particular white man was still offended by his presence and his lack of humility around his "betters."
Robinson was an African man, born and raised in freedom until he was captured and brought to America in chains with other members of his family. Slavery had never bowed his spirit. And now, a half-dozen years after Emancipation, he saw no reason to kowtow to any man.
He had waited all day in the blistering Texas sun because he had to feed and house his family. But he wasn't going to put up with abuse without fighting back. There was a confrontation, and the white man died.
An all-white jury sentenced Robinson to life in prison. His mother, an educated woman, spent the next three years writing letters and meeting with officials, hoping to commute her son's sentence. He was a good man, she pleaded, a hard worker who could read and write and had never before been in trouble with the law.
She wrote to her former owner asking for her help. The woman responded:
"Ask the white people to sign the petition. If you can get the jury men and the judge to sign it, I believe it will have great influence on the governor. When you get the petition signed, I will write to the governor and ask for his merciful interference on your behalf.
"Remember me to all my old servants and remind them to be honest, industrious and to love and fear God."
Over a century later, Robinson's great-great-granddaughter, Delia Armstrong-Busby, gently turns the plastic sleeve of a scrapbook that protects the letter and other family heirlooms. She reaches inside the next sleeve and gingerly withdraws another fragile document.
"Her persistence paid off," Delia says. "This is his pardon."
The document, dated July 22, 1874, is signed by R.B. Hubbard, the governor of the young state of Texas. Citing Robinson's otherwise "exemplary character" and noting that letters had been written to him by Swenson and the judge who presided over the trial, Hubbard determined that three years had been punishment enough.
Robinson left prison and made good on his second chance, becoming a successful businessman and respected community leader. But his descendants say his greatest accomplishment was starting a school for black children in Eagle Lake, Texas.
The ability to read and write, to communicate and debate, had certainly saved his from being a wasted life. The importance of education would be the legacy he would pass on to his children and their children's children, like the scrapbooks that now rest on Delia's lap.
She carefully folds and replaces the pardon. Some member of the family is always charged with being the custodian of the family history, and she's it for this generation.
She also has done her best to carry on Robinson's legacy--from her childhood in South Central Los Angeles, through the Watts riots of 1965, to her controversial appointment as the first black woman principal of a Colorado high school--William Mitchell High School, in Colorado Springs.
There Delia won national and state awards for her innovative programs to combat gangs and drugs and to keep troubled kids in school when everyone else seemed to have given up on them. Her supporters include the children (many of them now in college) and the parents who appreciated the second chance, as well as police officers and district attorneys.
But she also made enemies along the way. School district administrators. Faculty members. The teachers' union. Even a certain clique of parents who complained that she was spending too much of her time keeping "the wrong kind of kids in school."
They cost her the job she loved, the job she'd trained for since she was a child.
South Central Los Angeles wasn't such a bad place when Delia Bliss ("Because I was so happy to have you," her mother told her) Armstrong was growing up. Her father, William Theodore Armstrong, was a longshoreman who made a good living and bought the family's small house in 1949--four years after Delia was born.
Back then the neighborhood was integrated. Blacks and whites lived peacefully side by side, competing good-naturedly to keep their yards neat and their homes in good repair. Street after street spoke of proud ownership.
The Armstrongs lived across 49th Street from South Park, a place where children could play safely, even after dark. They were within walking distance of the University of Southern California campus and the Coliseum, and only about five blocks from the main business section of the area, Broadway Street.