When Ronald B. Saunders was a boy of about 8 or 9, he overheard his mother, Beatrice Saunders Robinson, having a telephone conversation that would change his life.
"She was telling the national officials of the American Newspaper Guild, of which she was a member, that their convention would not be held in St. Louis if the hotels and restaurants in St. Louis continued to segregate blacks and whites," recalled Saunders, of Penn Hills. " I remember thinking, wow, she did that in such a quiet, dignified way."
Mrs. Robinson's powers of persuasion were so effective, in fact, that she and other African-American members of the union stayed in the main hotel of the convention in St. Louis and dined in its restaurants there. And they did it in the early 1950s, when Jim Crow laws were still barring blacks from movie theatres, swimming pools and other public places.
"That's just the kind of person she was, and I really do think that phone call shaped my own life in fighting for freedom, justice and equality" said Saunders of his mother, who died Thursday at Shadyside Hospital of liver failure. She was 89.
A lifelong Hill District resident, in 1948 Mrs. Robinson was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed as treasurer to a local unit of the Newspaper Guild -- in this case, Pittsburgh's. She went on to serve for 15 years on the local Newspaper Guild's executive board.
An employee of the New Pittsburgh Courier, where she eventually became the paper's office manager, Mrs. Robinson traveled the country as a representative of the union's local chapter, often finding herself to be the only African-American delegate at union conventions.
She was never fazed by that, said Lorraine Brown, of Harrisburg, Mrs. Robinson's best friend and sister-in-law.
"She had about as much inner strength as anyone I've known," said Mrs. Brown. "She was effective without being offensive, and she usually got her way because she was so persuasive."
A graduate of Schenley High School in Oakland, Mrs. Robinson knew early on that she would complete her education, even if lack of money -- and being a black woman at a time when even few white women went to college -- meant it would be years before she realized that goal. She attended classes at Carnegie Tech, Duff's Iron City Business College, and eventually, in 1956, received her degree as a licensed practical nurse from the Catherine McCauley School of Practical Nursing.
Her first husband, Thomas Saunders, with whom she had two sons, died in World War II. In 1952, she married James S. Robinson, a civil rights activist and advocate for troubled youth who had helped to integrate the Highland Park swimming pool the year before. He died in 1997.
Besides her newspaper activities, Mrs. Robinson was longtime president of the Francis Friendly Circle Club, a neighborhood service organization dedicated to helping residents of The Hill District. Its work included donating televisions and other equipment to the Centre Avenue YMCA, contributing to the United Negro College Fund, providing camp scholarships to children in the community and donating clothes and money to needy families.
Mrs. Robinson was also active at Christian Tabernacle Church, where she served as a trustee, treasurer and choir member, and a beloved Bible studies teacher at the church's Harty Bible School, where she served as vice-president and dean, recalled the Rev. Kenneth Barber, now the church's summer pastor. He described her as a woman of great spirituality and knowledge about the Bible "who inspired many students over the years in the first-year Genesis class."
Despite Mrs. Robinson's public accomplishments, she was equally committed to being a mother and a strong role model for her children, said her son, arranging to send him and his brother Thomas to a private school in Maine, Fryeburg Academy, "so we could have the best education possible." Both boys went on to college.
Her standards were as high for herself as for her children, he added.
"One of my most vivid memories is watching her study for one of her nursing exams, and when she got a grade of 99, she said, 'that will never happen again.' And the next time, she got a 100."
Besides Mr. Saunders, of Penn Hills, and Thomas J. Saunders, of Woodbridge, Va., Mrs. Robinson is survived by six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.
Visitation is from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. today at the Christian Tabernacle Church, 2601 Centre Ave. A funeral service will be held at the church tomorrow at 11 a.m.
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.