Selena Robinson: Steel-Willed Angel
by Carl Hoffman
"It got so every time I went into City Hall, they'd say, 'What do you want now?' " says Selena Robinson. She smooths her skirt, places a foot on the old ottoman in her Brevard, North Carolina, home, and laughs softly.
Robinson looks just like the mild-mannered, church-going great-grandmother she is. But don't be fooled: behind the gentle demeanor is a fearless dynamo, a tireless and steel-willed angel. Over the last four decades, she has led the fights to integrate Brevard High School, bring mail service and housing to Brevard's black community, and retain the city's successful job-training program. She has challenged the hiring practices of local businesses and brought government services to countless citizens as an equal opportunity officer and outreach worker for the local community action agency. And that's in addition to performing 10,000 hours of volunteer work at the Schenck Job Corps Center in Pisgah Forest, serving on over a dozen boards, registering hundreds of voters in Brevard, and teaching Sunday school at Bethel A Baptist Church.
"She's an amazing person," says Rachel Delk, her supervisor at Western Carolina Community Action (WCCA), a community service agency. As Stella Trapp, publisher of the Transylvania Times, puts it, "When Selena Robinson makes up her mind, things get done."
Growing Up Rich in Wisdom and Love
Robinson was born in 1917, one of seven children in a family rich in wisdom and love, if not in money and formal education. Her mother was a midwife and practical nurse whose formal schooling ended after fifth grade. "My daddy always said, 'If you've got something in your head and God in your heart, then you'll make it,' " she remembers. "I hated him," she says with a smile, "because he'd make us say our alphabet backwards and make us do our times tables over and over." Her grandmother, who lived with the family until her death at 104, was a former slave. Although blinded from cataracts and crippled from a broken hip that was never mended by a doctor, "she always told us," says Robinson, " 'Don't hate people for what they do to you because hate will destroy you.' "
Married at 17, Robinson gave birth to 15 children (one of whom died at birth), including three sets of twins. "When we went to church, we'd take up a whole pew!" she says. Her husband, Chester, worked at the local gas station. Selena, besides caring for her children, sewed. "I guess I had a gift," she says of the slipcovers and formal dresses she created without patterns for her clients from pictures they brought her. Sometimes she sewed all night. She made cupcakes and pies every day, which her oldest daughter sold on the bus to school. "The year I had ten in school at once, that was the only time I thought I might go under," she admits. When she had three high school seniors at once one year who wanted class rings, "I sat them down and told them that it's not the rings but what's in your head that counts."
In 1941 the segregated school for blacks in Brevard burned down. Elementary-age children were sent to makeshift classrooms in local churches; high school students were bussed to the black high school in Hendersonville, a 40-mile round-trip journey every day. A new elementary school for blacks was built in 1948. When, in 1960, a new high school was built in Brevard to replace the white high school, Robinson and other blacks assumed their children would go there, too, "but the school board always told us there was no room, Robinson says. "Eventually I found out that the school was built for 800, but only 500 were enrolled."
Robinson helped found the Transylvania Citizens Improvement Organization (TCIO), which hired a lawyer and sued in U.S. District Court. TCIO won the suit, and in 1963 blacks began attending Brevard High School. Robinson's children were among the school's first black students.
A Remarkable Career
When Western Carolina Community Action was created in 1966 to organized administer social services in Transylvania and Henderson Counties, Robinson was asked to serve on its board. Soon after, she was hired on as an outreach worker, and her remarkable career took off. "Selena Robinson probably has more heart than anyone," says WCCA director John Leatherwood, "and she was involved in just about everything." She organized the black community to demand mail delivery. She challenged companies whose hiring practices were discriminatory. She fought for compensation for a woman whose house was being appropriated for a new road. She helped people gain access to government services, and in the process, became the first black to venture into poor white neighborhoods where, as she says, "blacks were not allowed to go."
"She could sign people up for services and become a trusted member of different communities," says Joan Tuttle, director of aging programs at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, "and in the rural South, that can be difficult."
In the late 1960s, as Leatherwood puts it, "Selena developed a complete neighborhood," which included not just getting housing built but also securing low-income loans for their purchase. "I got all the information and just hustled the system," says Robinson. "I did everything from breaking the ground to helping name the streets.""She was a tremendous community organizer," says Frederick Gordon, her pastor (and former Sunday school student) at Bethel A Baptist Church, "and yet she's mild-mannered and doesn't brag about what she's done."
In 1970 Robinson's husband died of lung cancer. She still had six kids in school, but even as a single parent, she didn't cut back on her community work. Or, as she puts it: "After my husband died, my children were pretty good sized, and I had the time." When local opposition threatened to close the Schenck Job Corps Center, Robinson organized the Community Relations Council to smooth over neighborhood fears. "Selena was instrumental in gaining community acceptance of the program," says the center's deputy director, Judy Hall. Robinson's volunteer work at Schenck—10,000 hours over 31 years—included everything from mentoring students to tutoring to making curtains for its dormitory's 40 windows.
Although she retired from WCCA in 1990 after 23 years—the last few as a supervisor of other outreach workers—Robinson didn't exactly retire in the conventional sense of the word. She has served on the boards of the local Meals on Wheels program, the Brevard City Personnel Board, the local health department, Pisgah Legal Services (a legal-aid service for low-income individuals), the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the Transylvania County Historical Society, and the executive board of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, among others. She is vice president of her community organization, director of ushers and president of the Missionary Circle at her church, a Girl Scout leader, and, until recently, a member of the local hospital auxiliary. ("I had to give something up," she says.) Along an entire wall of her house are certificates and plaques and letters, over 20 of them. There's the 1997 "Fine Womanhood Award" from Zeta Phi Beta sorority; a tribute from the state of North Carolina signed by Governor James B. Hunt; the keys to the city of Brevard; even a letter from President Ronald Reagan. "Sometimes I wonder if I deserve all this," she says, "but I didn't do it for any praise. I did it to help people."
Overshadowing all the awards, however, a tree made out of green felt takes pride of place in Robinson's living room. At the top are two names: Selena and Chester, followed by descending rows of hearts, each with a name: 14 children, 43 grandchildren, and 59 great-grandchildren. "I asked God, if he would let me get my children out of diapers and bottles, then I would help somebody else," Robinson says, eyeing the impressive tree. "We need to leave this world in better shape than we found it in."
Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.