Theresa Laura Robinson, affectionately known as “Mom,” “Big “T”, “Mama T,” ”Terri,” “Lady Theresa,” and “Grandma” passed away on March 15, 2022 after being rushed by ambulance to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia.
Theresa was born in Chantilly, Virginia, to Harry and Viola Payne, and was one of 11 siblings. After graduating from high school in Virginia, Theresa moved to Wilmington, Delaware at the suggestion of her brother, Harry Payne and older sister, Marie Lockett, where she met and later married the love of her life, Alonzo Robinson. From that union, they had four children, Wayne Alonzo Robinson, Ronald Kevin Robinson, Kim Anthony Robinson and Jean Marie Robinson. In the early fifties, Theresa and Alonzo moved to Milwaukee so Alonzo could begin a new job as an architect for the City of Milwaukee. After relocating to Milwaukee, Theresa and Alonzo joined St. James United Methodist Church where Theresa worked actively and taught both Sunday and Vacation Bible schools.
Theresa like other African Americans growing up in Fairfax County, Virginia, attended various one-room racially segregated “School Houses for Colored” students. Because the desegregation of the public schools in Virginia did not begin until February of 1959 and continued through 1970 when the state governments’ attempts to resist desegregation ended, Theresa was forced to complete her entire formal education in totally racially segregated Blacks-only schools that she often described as “separate and unequal.” When asked what her school-life was like growing up, Theresa would quickly and emotionally recount how she walked, “over eight miles to attend one-room Blacks-only schools that generally housed and educated grades one through seven in the same room, at the same time, 3 or 4 days a week, with a couple of books and extremely limited teaching supplies.” She further explained that “funding for black schools in Virginia fell far short of what white schools received,” and characterized the discrepancies in salaries for teachers and administrators as “shameful.”
Theresa’s Virginia educational experience had a tremendous impact on her views regarding the value and importance of obtaining a quality education and it formed the basis for her enduring quest to ensure that each of her kids, grandkids and other family members would receive a quality education. Determined that none of her kids would be educated in racially segregated or inferior facilities or ‘separate but unequal’ settings, like those she experienced growing up in Virginia, Theresa worked tirelessly as a volunteer with the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (“MUSIC”), Father James Groppi, the Wisconsin NAACP and Civil Rights Attorney Lloyd Barbee to desegregate Milwaukee Public Schools (“MPS”). After participating with her school-age children beside her in numerous high-profile protest demonstrations that ultimately failed to convince the Milwaukee school board to change policies resulting in de facto segregation; Theresa decided in 1965, along with 40 other parents of Black and white children and the assistance of Attorney Lloyd Barbee to file a lawsuit to challenge segregation in Milwaukee Public Schools. When Theresa, in consultation with her husband Alonzo, made her decision to step up her ‘fight’ against segregation in MPS, she later explained that she had “no idea just how long and how hard the fight would be to achieve justice and victory…”In fact, although she initially enrolled each of her school-age children as Plaintiffs in the class-action desegregation suit, because the lawsuit went on for years and the school board doggedly appealed its initial findings all the way to the United States Supreme Court, only Jean, Theresa and Alonzo’s youngest child, became a named Plaintiff in the landmark suit. Wayne, Ronald and Kim had graduated and aged out of the “MPS” system, years before the Trial.
It took Federal Judge John Reynolds more than a decade to order “MPS” to take immediate steps to integrate the schools and to rule that they were illegally segregated. Although he made his ruling in 1976, it was not until March of 1979 that the case, Amos et al v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee actually settled and MPS began taking measures to integrate its schools. During this turbulent 14-year litigation period, Theresa often remarked “it doesn’t matter how long this fight takes, and how many friends we lose because of our position in this case, we are in it until the end because education is the most powerful weapon you can possibly have in achieving upward mobility and socioeconomic success.”
In addition to valuing education, Theresa was also passionate about family and family unity, food, cooking, fishing, plants and politics. She was a fantastic cook and “foodie” who loved to dine at 5 star restaurants. Despite, being a working mother who worked in various retail sales positions and as a candy designer at The Chocolate House, Theresa prepared school lunches and home-cooked meals for her family every day of the week, without exception. Her homemade apple pie and chocolate cake were infamous and her potato salad was referred to by some as “legendary.” At all major holidays, Theresa organized and prepared large formal family dinners accompanied by white table cloths, China, silver, and lots of spirited family debate. She loved fishing, seafood and” Friday Night Fish Fries” and would oftentimes take her kids and grandkids to fish at various WI lakes. Theresa was a plant-lover with a serious ‘green thumb,’ who took tremendous pride in seeing her plants bloom, grow and thrive.
Exercising her right to vote in all elections was important to Theresa and when her health precluded her from easily doing so, she took extraordinary measures to ensure her absentee ballot was always counted by the Wisconsin Election Commission. Highlights in her political life included: working at the polls and with various organizations to get out the vote, meeting and attending a private dinner with President Barack Obama in 2015 and attending the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
Theresa was predeceased by her Mother and Father Harry and Viola Payne, ten siblings, Marie Lockett, Zelma Lee, Rosetta Stansbury, Richard, Harry, Howard, Grafton, Sidney, Gilbert and Paul Payne, her beloved husband Alonzo Robinson, son, Ronald Robinson and Grandson, Alonzo Robinson. Theresa is survived by her sons, Wayne (Frankie) and Kim Robinson (Terese) and her daughter Jean Robinson, grandkids, Kenyon Robinson, Kidada Robinson, Aaron Puckett, LaCesha Edwards, Krystal Griffin, Kim-Anthony Robinson Jr., Kourtnei Robinson, MD and Theresa Robinson, 15 great-grandchildren, 15 nieces and nephews and a host of other relatives and special friends.
Services were held at Albright United Methodist Church at 5555 W. Capitol Drive, Milwaukee, WI on Saturday March 26, 2022with Visitation from 9:00 to 10:45AM and Funeral Services at11:00AM.Interment followed services at Wisconsin Memorial Park at 13235 W. Capitol Drive, Brookfield, WI 53005.