Sam Robinson came to Louisville in 1960 to work for the Lincoln Institute, a school created by Berea College in 1912 in Shelby County to educate black Kentuckians. His mentor and director was Whitney Young, Sr., a Lincoln Institute graduate who had risen to become its first black president and served for almost 40 years.
Dr. Robinson jumped into civic activities shortly after he arrived. He started with the West End Community Improvement Association, which tried to stem white flight as blacks moved into West Louisville neighborhoods. One leadership position led to another, as his reputation for hard work and his enthusiasm for community projects became known.
He served on the boards of Bellarmine University, PNC Bank, the National Board of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association, and Visitors of the Indiana University School of Education. He also serves on the board of the Muhammed Ali Center and the Africian-American Heritage Center. He is a co-founder of the Louisville Chapter of One Hundred Black Men and the Kentucky Minority AIDS Council.
Dr. Robinson was very active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, and when the Jefferson County Public Schools were ordered desegregated, he was co-chairman of the council that helped map out the plan.
Through such activities, he met a lot of people, and he parlayed his contacts into a career as a noted fundraiser. In 1994, for example, the James Graham Brown Foundation offered his Lincoln Foundation a challenge grant of $500,000 for its Whitney M. Young Scholars Program®.
The grant called for Dr. Robinson’s group to raise $500,000 in matching money in a little over a year. Robinson did it in less than six months. The Scholars Program picks up students in the seventh grade and guides them through high school with a promise of a college scholarship if they maintain grades. He considers the program to be his signature achievement.
Eleanor Stokes, sister of the late Rev. Vernon Robertson – with whom Dr. Robinson worked on Montessori schools for many years – told The Courier-Journal in 2001 that the two men were very much alike. “They both know a lot of people in the community and they had the kind of personality that draws people to them,” she said.
Sam Robinson was one of nine children, born in 1935 in Memphis, Tennessee . He graduated from Tennessee State University in 1956, with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. He served two years in the Army, before moving to Louisville. He started out teaching biology and math at the Lincoln Institute, then ultimately became Dean of Education and Administrative Assistant to the President.
The state took over funding of the Institute in the 1940s and, in 1967, changed the school’s mission from educating black students to teaching gifted, but disadvantaged students. Dr. Robinson became Principal. Although the state closed the school in 1970, one class was able to graduate. Dr. Robinson likes to note that all 42 of the graduates had four-year scholarships to colleges, including Harvard and Yale.
Dr. Robinson was Principal at Louisville ‘s Shawnee High School for a few years, then went to Indiana University to earn a Doctorate in Education. When he returned to Louisville in 1974, he became Executive Director of the Lincoln Foundation. He later became its President in 1991. The Foundation was established in 1910 to start and support the Institute, and it later supported minority scholarships in general.
Dr. Robinson retired as President in 2000, though he continued to work with Montessori schools. He also took a job as Executive-in-Residence at Bellarmine University, to help with recruitment of minority students. He has received over 100 honors throughout his career, including induction into the National African American Hall of Fame. Dr. Robinson has received Honorary Doctorates from Northern Kentucky and Bellarmine Universities. In 1997, Louisville Magazine named him one of Louisville ‘s 50 most influential citizens.
In 2001, Louisville Mayor David Armstrong presented Dr. Robinson with the city’s second Dream Award, which recognizes someone who reflects the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Robinson is married to the former Hugh Ella Walker, a retired Jefferson County Public School teacher. They have two daughters and six grandchildren.