In Memoriam: My Conversation with Evanston Business Leader Leon "Sonny" Robinson
Leon "Sonny" Robinson, an enormously respected, influential and beloved Evanston business and community leader, died on June 7 at the age of 90. I was honored to speak to him at his home in Evanston's second ward on a beautiful Fall day in September 2017.
Robinson, who was born and raised in Evanston, was perhaps best known for the yellow-school-bus Robinson Bus Company. He, his parents, and his brother Roy started the company as part of Robinson Enterprises, which they founded 50 years ago by purchasing two Evanston gas stations and a fleet of taxis.
Starting with just two buses, at its peak, Robinson Bus Company owned 700 school buses (Robinson sold it to a British company in 1998) and was one of the first and largest Black-owned transportation companies in the country. It owed much of its growth to school desegration.
"When they started school integration, they hired Superintendent Gregory Coffin to integrate the schools. He asked me if I could run the summer school program and I said yeah," Robinson told me during our conversation at his home that September day. "So we rented some buses and I ran the program. He said next year they was going to bus kids. And what they did is, they went into the 5th Ward, took the kids out of there and moved them around different school districts. So we did bus them for 44 years."
In addition to his work with Robinson Enterprises, Robinson was deeply involved in the Evanston community. He served as president of the National School Transportation Board, served on the board of First Bank and Trust, the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, Evanston Hospital, and others, and was sought out by many residents and leaders for his advice and support. His family have been members of Ebenezer AME -Evanston IL for many years, and memorial services for Robinson were held there last month.
Robinson's maternal grandparents came to Evanston from South Carolina in 1903, and his mother was born here in 1910. His father, who was born in Arkansas, came to live in Evanston when he was 14.
"My grandmother was Scotch Irish and my grandfather was a Cherokee Indian," he said. "And so, they kind of ran them out of the south at that time. They came up north. And my grandfather worked for the city of Evanston till he retired."
Mr. Robinson and I chatted at his home on Lyons Street while his wife Alice, who suffers from Alzheimers and had recently returned from a month-long stint at rehab after a stroke, rested upstairs. The trees outside rustled in the wind and caregivers bustled in the kitchen.
At the time, Robinson was ailing and his voice was weak, but his mind and memory were strong. He was gracious and engaging, and generous with his time.
Here's the rest of our conversation [edited for length and clarity. You can hear more in the video]:
DE: What did your grandfather do?
LR: He, he actually worked in the incinerator where they burned all the garbage at ... I used to take his lunch up there ... on Maple Avenue.
DE: : And what did your dad do?
LR: My dad in the early days chauffeured and then he had a cleaning business, cleaning and pressing. And he owned real estate and he used to clean buildings at night when these office buildings were closed down. He had a crew of guys that would go in there and clean them up.
DE: And your mom?
LR: And my mother was a housewife. Did volunteer work. She worked for Head Start when it first got started, she was on the board there. We went in a family business, owned a gas station where the fire house is on Emerson Street about, I guess 50 years ago now.
DE: So, your family started the gas station?
LR: Right. Mobil gas station. Mobil built it. We bought it from Mobil. Then we had cabs. We bought Better Cabs from Joe Davis. Years ago, most of the guys that were cab drivers used to be chauffeurs up on the North Shore. When I was a kid, you come down Sheridan Road or Green Bay and most of the cars you seen come from up north were Black drivers. People hired them as chauffeurs, that was cheaper in them days. You could get a person for $25 a week.
And they didn’t have gardeners like they do today, running around. So, a family had their own gardener, their own first maid, second maid. Each child had a caregiver and a chauffeur. So a family might have eight or 10 people working for the family in one of them big homes up there.
DE: And where did you live?
LR: Well I was born at 1920 Darrow, right off Emerson Street at my grandfather’s house. And then later on my father bought a three-flat building on Garnett Place and we moved there. And that’s where we were raised. When we left I bought this house. My brother bought a house on Fowler. My sister bought a house on Grey. I've been here 57 years. So it's been a while.
DE: Where did you go to school?
LR: I went to Foster School at first. Then I went over to Noyes School and then I went to Nichols School. I went to Evanston Township High School (ETHS). Foster was a predominantly Black school. Only a handful of white kids went there. In the old days up in the 2100 block of Darrow and Jackson and Dewy there was whites all up in there. So those kids went to school over there. But mostly Blacks.
DE: What year were you at Foster School?
LR: I graduated from high school in ’46 ... so I was at Foster School in the ‘30s. Yeah, Foster school was a nice school. And you know, the kids they were kids. Like one big family. Everybody knew everybody. Evanston was a town pretty much that they might not know your name but they knew what family you come from.
DE: When Foster closed, how did it affect the community?
LR: Well when Foster closed, they had a fire over there and then they moved the kids to different schools. And then they started school integration. Greg Coffin came here to integrate the schools. He asked me if I could run the summer school program and I said yeah. So we rented some buses and we ran a program. He said next year they was gonna bus kids. What they did is, they went into the fifth ward, took the kids out of there and moved them to the different schools, to Lincolnwood, to Orrington, to Walker, Skokie area. So we did busing for 44 years, and started Robinson Bus Company.
DE: So, your bus company started at the start of integration.
LR: Right. And that’s when busing across the country started. Schools was already doing buses in a lot of places because of the distance of kids away from school, to about a mile and a half. But then they, after integration came in, they started busing kids because they had to go in Black neighborhoods and get the kids, Blacks, and mix them up into the white schools. So, that’s what they did, they went in the 5th Ward where predominant Blacks stayed in the fifth ward. And then all the kids that went to Foster School got sent around all these different schools.
DE: And do you remember what kids felt like at that time and what families felt like when Foster closed and they had to get on the bus?
LR: Well, you know, people had a loyalty to Foster, the Blacks did. Cause it was good to them. After [desegregation] got started, some families didn’t like it. And some families did like it.
Racism is around today. When I came along, you couldn’t eat in a dime store, as an example. Or go to any restaurants around. If we had parties, we'd have to go to the south side. We’d have to go to the south side to a nice restaurant. Were no nice restaurants around.
I went to high school, I was the first Black to go in an MTC (military training). What happened was my father was working for a [white] family out on Ridge Avenue and my mother asked them if we could use their address. She wanted to move me to Nichols school, so we used their address up on Ridge Avenue. And because of the address and location, they sent us an application for the MTC.
And I said, 'I don’t want to go out there.' My mother said, 'Yeah, you gonna go.' And so, I went out there. And the commandant out there said, 'Oh we filled up.' And she said, 'Well, how do you you know? You got no numbers on these applications, and plenty of people filling them out.' So, she was active with the NAACP, so they put a little pressure on the school and they took me. I was the first Black to go there.
We had the first dance and it was at the high school and I was the only Black at the dance. So, my uncle had dropped us off at the high school with the girls and we walked down Church Street to Cooley's Cupboard [well known for not serving Blacks], which was on Orrington Avenue ... So, we finally got into the restaurant and they come over there and served us. When we came out, a policeman said, 'Why don’t you eat on your side of town?' Well, our side of town we had a hamburger place over there on Emerson Street, a little place that sold hamburgers, pies, and pop. There wasn’t no decent restaurant at the time.
When I came along, I was the third Black guy in Rotary International. It was a wonderful outfit. I was in there for 37 years.
So, I had a wealth of experience. And Rotary used to have a fundraiser, a big carnival right there on Emerson, by the Elgin Road and Benson. There was a parking lot there. And after the carnival we would go down to Carmen's, he was in the Rotary also. He had a pizza restaurant on Orrington. And so, we go down there and had pizza after, and beer.
So, this fella came here from Indianapolis, Joe Barnett, and Joe Barnett ended up being the president of a bank, First Bank. So, he said, 'Why don’t you get on the bank board or something?' I said, 'I would if somebody would let me,' you know. So, we had lunch together and he said, 'Yeah, I want to get you on a lot of boards.' I went on Evanston Hospital Board at the time. I went on National Louis College Board. I went on Children Home and Aid Society Board.
My father was on the Community Hospital board [the only hospital in Evanston that would admit Blacks. It closed in 1980]. My brother was one of the first kids born in the first Community Hospital.
When my grandmother had a heart attack, this goes back to the '40s, they had to take her to Providence Hospital downtown because you couldn't go to Evanston or St. Francis. And Community Hospital was only equipped to handle certain things.
DE: What do you think the effects of integration were in Evanston? Do you think there was a lot gained? And was there anything lost?
LR: Well, it was a little gain and a little loss. What I mean by that--to me it knocked the Black businesses out of business. Cause people had to go to Black business to buy things. They had little restaurants and shoe shops and cleaners and different things that people were kind of forced to buy. When integration came up, then people went and bought anywhere. And so consequently, a lot of Black businesses went out of business.
DE: What do you think about the state of the Black community in Evanston today?
LR: Well, you know, I think what’s happening is real estate is getting higher. I just heard on TV today at City Council, they’re talking about, they’ve always tried to pass some type of low-income housing, affordable housing, affordable rents. But because of taxes higher and property higher, people can’t rent. So, a lot of people get pushed out of the city and they just saying all the people that need housing haven’t been able to get it.
My generation hung around. My mother and them generation hung around. And they hung around the old neighborhoods because they acquired the property their mother and father had. But as our kids came along, they moved out.
DE: How many children do you have?
LR: One daughter. Times change. They were buying homes back in those days. It was probably like they were staying on a couple of jobs or both husband and wife worked together as a couple and they bought a house down here in Evanston and rented summer rooms out. They used to have rooming houses, and then the city stopped all that rooming houses stuff. So that kind of knocked that out.
DE: What are some of your favorite memories of growing up here?
LR: Well, I thought it was a nice town growing up. I mean I had a lot of fun, knew a lot of people. Bennett J. Johnson and I was raised up together. We used to eat at each other's houses. That's the old gang. Bennett and I go back a long way. Hell of a nice guy. Bennett has been in politics all of his life. My mother ran for alderman of the 5th ward when they were talking about tearing the Mayfair Triangle out of there, years ago. She ran to stop it. The churches got together, hired a lawyer, and put a stop to it. Bennett was her campaign manager. They've been fighting this battle with the city for set-asides for minorities. We fought that battle 50 years ago.
DE: Were you an athlete in high school or a studious kind of a kid?
LR: Average. I wasn’t a super star or nothing like that. My brother played basketball. I didn’t play basketball. At that time, it was kind of tough because they didn’t have but a few Blacks on those type of teams. It was mostly whites.
DE: Tell me a little bit about the bus company. Was it the first Black-owned bus company in the country?
LR: Yeah, and the largest. We sold out to a company called Durham, which then sold out to a company in London, England, that leases Heathrow Airport, and the trains running to Paris.
I became president of the School Bus Association and the only Black in it. And I traveled all over this country, met a lot of people. So, these brothers out of Kansas City who I used to buy buses from called me one time and say 'Leon, there’s a group here from London that wants to buy your company.' I said, 'My company?'
So we talked ... [you can hear the story of the sale in the video]
DE: So how many buses do you think you had at the highest?
LR: About 700. Started with two.
DE: Do you feel proud of having started something so big?
LR: Well, it was kind of a fluke I got into it. I didn’t know nothing about it, but I learned it and I liked doing it. I liked meeting the people. I'd leave Monday mornings at 4 o’clock and catch the plane to Detroit. Set up some meetings, and then I’d leave out of Detroit maybe Monday night or Tuesday, go up to Philadelphia and leave Philadelphia went to Newark. We had motor coaches too. Then I was going out to LA because Hudson General called me and I did a partnership with them for the airports. They did Kennedy, LaGuardia, and the World Trade Building. We used to have lunch up on the top floor there all the time.
DE: After high school, what did you do?
LR: I went to college.
DE: Where did you go?
LR: West Virginia State. When I came out of college, I went to the Army for two years.
DE: What did you study in college?
LR: General courses. As a kid you don’t know what the hell you’re going to be doing [laughs].
But I always liked business and was always around people that was in business. My father was in business doing a lot of different things to make a living. He came along when it was tough to make money. I mean, he used to have a catering business that he worked on weekends and they’d do big parties. I'd go there and tend bar. Get 25 bucks and 5-dollar tip. All the money I earned I put it in a jar. Saved money.
My wife taught school in Selma, Alabama. She was making $1,600 a year, a year mind you. And then when she came here at Foster School she was teaching and it was paying $3,600 a year, along with Mayor [Lorraine] Morton and Joe Hill. If you were a Black teacher, that’s where you went to work at.
And then later on she went to National Louis and taught there cause my daughter went to school up there. And then she came back to the District. She retired from District.She taught 40-some years. Now she has Alzheimer’s and she had a stroke. She was in rehab in Wilmette. But she’s doing pretty good.
DE: Would you say it would be a loss to the community if Family Focus were sold out of the community? [you can hear more about Family Focus in the video].
LR: Yeah ... I think the community needs it.
DE: Could you see Northwestern University as being able to play a role in supporting Family Focus?
LR: Northwestern is the richest of the Big Ten. And they built all the new hospitals downtown. They're also building the campus up over here. It’s a beautiful campus. I remember when I was at a meeting over there and [the president] was telling people what all Northwestern is doing rebuilding the campus.
So, I said Emerson Street comes directly into the campus. Is there something Northwestern can do to help clean it up coming into the campus? He said that Northwestern raises their money for Northwestern, not outside Northwestern. They might have bought a fire truck now and then and donated it to the city, but they haven’t spent no real money with the city.
DE: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
LR: You know what happens is you interview people, and it's their side of what's going on. I’m 100 percent for it, because these young kids coming along want to know what Black people did in this town. By the time they get grown up, white people are buying all back and through here.
Here's an interesting report, just published by Robert Seidenberg/Evanston RoundTable who attended Mr. Robinson's memorial service.