Always a Fighter: Sen. Gladys Robinson’s Humble Beginnings Shape Her Humanity, Drive

Ben Brown and Jack Cassidy, NCLM Communications

Sen. Gladys Robinson of Greensboro won election to the legislature just in time for the wave of change that removed her party from its leadership spot. That was 10 years ago and the power dynamics have mostly held, with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. While that’s posed plenty of challenges for Democrats like Senator Robinson in shepherding ideas for legislation, her life story is about fighting through as the underdog and making sure her family — and now her broader community — has what it needs to succeed. Education and community health are big focuses for her, and she says she knows there’s a good formula for bipartisanship and togetherness on such needs. She said she experienced across-the-aisle teamwork while serving on the UNC Board of Governors, and during a visit to a small European nation 7,300 miles away, and knows it’s possible here. In politics it’s sometimes improper to say it’s personal, but Senator Robinson’s extraordinary and empowering background does bring out strong rays of humanity. It was on her mind as Southern City stopped in for a recent visit. 

Experiencing political difficulties under the current power structure in the General Assembly, you might often have to think about your initial reason for serving. What was it that initially pushed you into the legislature?

I had served on the UNC Board of Governors for 10 years. When I went there, part of my interest was going to the legislature. (Former) Sen. Bill Martin, who served District 28, was a friend of mine. Bill also had sickle cell and was one of my clients. So I had a long history with Senator Martin, and he would file legislation, I worked with him, I would come to Raleigh as an advocate. I chaired the state sickle cell council for 12 years, I helped to implement newborn screening for babies to make sure they were tested for sickle cell. So my history with making sure the laws respond to the needs of the people is long, both in education and health and all. In 2000, I was interested in coming (to the legislature). When Bill ran for the U.S. Senate and didn’t win, and Senator (Katie) Dorsett wanted to run (for the state Senate seat)… So I went to the Board of Governors, she came to Raleigh, so my interest has been here for a long time, in terms of making laws. When I was on the Board of Governors, I was able to see what we were able to do in terms of working with the legislature, and that was a good thing because we had a bipartisan Board of Governors. We worked together. The Democrats were in control then, appointed Republicans to the Board of Governors. (House Speaker) Tim Moore was one of them… We worked together to try to create a better system. And of course there were issues that I was concerned about, and I fought hard for HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) because the disparity in funding was awful. We got the bond, we built schools, we built buildings on campuses across the state… We were able to get some things done together. I learned a lot, and I educated other folk a lot about that. After being on the Board of Governors for 10 years, Senator Dorsett retired. I was certainly interested in coming to the legislature… My interest has been health and education, and to help with that. 

That level of cooperation (on the Board of Governors) — how did that experience match with your expectations entering the legislature? 

My experience on the Board of Governors led me to think that if we could have bipartisan cooperation on the Board of Governors and improve a system that was really a good system and understand the importance of education at the higher level, and early education, preschool and all that, and how our universities feed the economy and help to grow early childhood development and all that, then I thought that if we could do that there certainly we could do more here in Raleigh in the legislature. So it was disappointing to see that, hey, that didn’t exist here (laughter). It may have existed at one time, but certainly it doesn’t exist now. (But) I’m not backing up. I’m not backing up. 

Does anything call to you from your childhood that shapes the fighter you ended up being? 

I grew up poor. Very poor. It was seven of us in our family. My mom worked and cleaned houses in white communities where people were wealthy. She later went to be a cook in the school cafeteria and fed a lot of children who didn’t have money. And my dad only had a second grade education, but he was a landscaper…. He trimmed the trees for the City of Columbus, he planted trees, he could tell you about every flower there was. He did it all. But he only made $50 a week, and it wasn’t enough to support us, yet it wasn’t little enough to get us into public housing. So we didn’t have the opportunity to move into the first public housing where my friends moved because my dad made too much money. So we had to survive on what little he made. He worked three jobs. He worked on the weekends … until he died at 72. And so it was hard growing up. And my mom worked hard. But they both believed in education. My oldest brother, who’s about 13, 14 years older than me, went to Savannah State University. He was the first one in my family to go to Savannah State, he went on a football scholarship. And so it was one of those things, my parents said, “We’ll get you out of high school. Can’t do anything else. We want to make sure you finish high school, and if you can’t go to college, make sure you get a job doing well.” My other brother went to the Marines and made a career there. And then one of my sisters went to college thinking she had a scholarship, got there, found out she didn’t. And so it was devastating for her. But she picked herself up and became the first black operator for Southern Bell (the regional telephone company), and later became an engineer. Without a college degree. Because she worked just that hard. 

I was the next child, very smart, I was valedictorian, all that — even though they didn’t let me speak. We looked at children by income. Even during segregation, people discriminated based on who your parents were. My parents weren’t known. They were poor, so they wanted the next young lady (in the graduating class) to be valedictorian, but I was smarter. But they didn’t give me the opportunity to speak and to do these things. But I got all kinds of scholarship offers… everywhere, you name it. I ended up going to Bennett College (in Greensboro), because I had an English teacher from Bennett. So, you know, that kind of inspiration, and I had a 5th grade teacher who bought me my first pair of heels, who bought me a clarinet, who said, “You can do anything you want to do.” Those teachers were inspirational for me. They made the difference. What my parents could not do, they did for me. So I became empowered because of them when I came to Bennett. I immediately got into the community, and in the ‘60s, this is the mid ‘60s, help with advocating and doing strikes for garbage workers, for cafeteria workers — like my mom, who didn’t have a decent wage. So my community activism started when I hit the campus. My psychology professor said you don’t learn as much on campus; you learn it in the community. So we’re in the community doing that. And my first political piece actually outside of those strikes was Henry Frye’s campaign. He was running to be in the N.C. House of Representatives, and I was a college student, and we did door to door, registering people to vote, getting folks out to vote, etc, so Henry was elected — and that resonates with me. It resonates with me what college students can do. We were so involved, just doing a lot of stuff in the community. We weren’t just on campus. And so that began my political career. 

Sen. Robinson said seeing examples of bipartisan success in previous roles inspires her to fight for more common-ground sight in the legislature. Photo credit: Ben Brown

People so often invest in things and property, luxuries, but when you see someone who has value and you invest in them like the teachers who invested in you… 

And I forget to talk about that. Some people say they think, “Oh, you’ve always been where you are now.” Nope! Oh, no! I’ve been real poor, seven of us, mouths to feed, sometimes we were hungry without food. But you could rely on if big momma had food, you had food. My great aunt, who was on what was then called “welfare food,” she had food. Spare cheese, some flour to spare. And mom fed everybody; we couldn’t figure out how she did that… Folk need to know, and I don’t do it often, tell them how I grew up. And that certainly inspires me to do what I do for education, for health, et cetera. We couldn’t afford the dentist. My dad had to pull our teeth, because we couldn’t afford to go to the dentist… It’s important to me. 

There’s a level of persistence throughout that whole story… 

Oh yeah. We’ve got to get it done. It’s been my passion to make sure that all the other children and grandchildren in my family get a college education… So wherever there are children in our family, we make sure that they have an opportunity to go to college, and other kids if I can help them… We did it as a parent. My husband and I had two daughters, and he — he was a supervisor, manager at the post office, where I was a nonprofit leader. But the understanding was I would make sure the girls had everything they need… I was PTA president at seven or eight different schools. Every time a child was in a school, I was PTA president. Not because I cared about me being PTA president. I cared about the other kids whose parents didn’t come to school, and people will tell you that. That I cared about them and I fought for those schools to have the kind of teachers, the kind of equipment. I saw one of the former superintendents who lives here. Pete Eberhart was superintendent in Guilford County Schools… and I was a nightmare to Pete! (laughter) I was on the street one day and we were protesting, positively, and he said, Gladys Robinson, you were a nightmare, but you were good and I’m so glad you did what you did, because that’s what parents do, that’s what PTAs do… So I have continued that, that kind of mantra. 

If you’re in office for the right reasons, and it’s obvious you care about what you do, sometimes you can see that same quality in people who are ideologically different. You disagree, but can tell they believe in what they’re doing. Does that commonality make it easier to talk to the other side of the aisle? 

I can tell you there have been some good experiences. In my second term here, I served on the Public School Forum Board of Advisors and I went on as soon as I got here, because I had been a part of the university system, the Board of Governors. But the second term here, there were some of us who went to Finland to see why their education, why their kids were the highest performing. What are we missing here? (Robinson and a band of other officials including former senator) Louis Pate, who is a Republican and whose wife was a teacher, she went too… There were Republicans and Democrats. Tim Moore went as well, too. And so what we did as well was we went to their schools, went to the lower grade schools, looked at their early childhood development programs, what they did with their schools, and learned that Finland supports early childhood development even with the parent in the home, to make sure that parent is educated about it, that you need to read to the child, what do you need in terms of support here in the home for that child. And it goes all the way through! Of course at their high school level, the children choose a track — either I’m going to college or I’m going to work. I don’t like that as much because I don’t think you should track kids. But they’re successful at either track they choose. They perform well. We looked at their legislature. They have several parties. What they said to us was, “Yeah, we fight and we disagree, but all of us agree on education. We agree that education is a priority, we’ve got to fund it.” I said wow! That resonated. And so we came back saying, wow, that’s great, now we need to make sure that we support and fund early childhood development, that we do that for public schools, et cetera, and I’d felt like wow, we’re going to get something done. And in the House they worked on it, we worked on it over here. Louis Pate and I talked. But we couldn’t get anything done. I am certain that Louis got stopped by his colleagues, because I think that Louis really has a kind heart, he has a good heart. Louis helped me to pass the breast cancer bill, because I couldn’t get it through. He’s the one who got it through (the Rules Committee) for me… so we could get it done. Louis and I could work together, and Louis really cared. But I am sure that his colleagues are the ones who said, no, we’re not going to let you do that. So there are people who care, and people want to get the same kind of results… (Senator) Jim Davis and I, Jim’s a dentist and he and I fought on the floor — boy he and I fought on the floor sometimes (laughter). I don’t mind fighting on the floor sometimes. But Jim cares about mental health, substance abuse issues and so on. And he and I have done some forums together. and in principle we agree on those issues! We really do. When it gets to the other issues, oh, no (laughter). 

How about with local officials in your district? What’s communication like? 

This year I chaired the delegation, the Guilford County delegation, and of course we have one more Democrat than Republicans, but even the Republicans said they were going to support me to be chair… All of them supported me in becoming chair. And what I said to them is we are different parties, but we represent the same people, and what I want from them is, we aren’t going to agree, but I ought to have some issues that this whole delegation is going to get on board and support for Guilford County. And we did that! We did that with the mental health center. We met with the (county) commissioners in terms of trying to get the funding they needed… to match their money for mental health, so we did that. We’ve had town hall meetings of course, and some come, some don’t come, but in general, we’ve worked together. They worked with me on the tornado relief funding for Guildford. I proposed and asked for millions of dollars for east Greensboro, where I represent, and (Senator) Jerry (Tillman) signed on to that with me, and so we’ve had some things that we’ve worked together on… Community kinds of things, we support. The local officials, what I tell people is that if it’s something that has to do with what local government has authority on, I don’t do that. I don’t get into their space, and I don’t expect them to get into mine. If there’s something they need, I expect them to talk to us.