Jenice Armstrong: Edward W. Robinson Jr. left a legacy of African-American history

IN 1968, WHILE showing insurance executives an old slave auction block in New Orleans, Edward W. Robinson Jr. had a vision.

He'd been explaining how many African slaves were learned people and skilled tradesmen when they'd been brought to America in shackles. He then saw a crowd of people dressed in magnificent African garb. One of them called out to him in a loud, booming voice, "Edward, tell them who we are."


Robinson, who would go on to serve as Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of state, as Philly's managing director under Mayor Green and on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, decided at that moment to make it his life's mission to teach people that African-American history didn't start with slavery - there had been universities and all kinds of advancement taking place in Africa long before slave ships started showing up to raid the continent.

Robinson despised the way movies such as "Tarzan" depicted Africans and was convinced that, "the real problem, the virus that infects all Americans, black and white, is that the total society has been subliminally programmed by textbooks, motion pictures and all other media to despise the ancestral value of African-Americans and all other people of African descent."

The solution? Teaching people about Africans such as Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian architect/physician credited with building the first pyramid.

Fast-forward to 2012.

Hundreds of people, many wearing elaborate African-style outfits, gathered on a dreary Sunday afternoon at the Sonesta Hotel in Center City to remember both the man and legend. Even though Robinson died of cancer in June at the age of 94, the event had an air of celebration. Children performed African dances. Drummers beat rhythms on African drums. A delegation flew in from Ghana. Music legend Kenny Gamble took to the stage, as did Philly attorney Michael Coard, Dr. Walter P. Lomax Jr., and state Sen. LeAnna Washington.

No, it didn't feel like the usual homegoing ceremony.

At times, it was more of a call to action as speakers called for a committee to be formed to investigate getting a statue erected in Robinson's honor.

"There's no reason for us not to have a statue in honor of this great man," said Molefi K. Asante, a professor at Temple University and the head of the Molefi Kete Asante Institute in Germantown.

Good idea.

But bigger than any statue could ever be, is the lasting gift Robinson gave to local students and teachers in terms of all of his years of agitating for the teaching of African-American studies.

"His legacy, as far as I'm concerned, is that his name is still on the work," pointed out Melvin Garrison, a content specialist for the Philadelphia school district who worked with Robinson and also considered him a friend. "His name will always be on the work. He'll always be remembered for helping us do the work."


Contact Jenice Armstrong at or 215-854-2223. Follow her on Twitter @JeniceAmstrong. Read her blog at