In Memoriam: My Conversation with Evanston Business Leader Leon "Sonny" Robinson

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

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.