Black History Month

Ethel Robinson ’05 shared gifts of education, sisterhood

February 16, 2011  |  By David Orenstein |  401-863-1862
Ethel Ester Maria Tremaine Robinson 1905 Brown graduate, English professor at Howard University
Ethel Robinson, a 1905 Brown graduate, taught English at Howard University, and while there, was instrumental in the founding of the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

African American women have long faced both a color barrier and a glass ceiling. Brown couldn’t count both of those walls as crumbled until Ethel Ester Maria Tremaine Robinson graduated from the Women’s College in 1905 with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree.

As a child, Robinson moved with her mother Julia A. Robinson to Providence from Washington, D.C. She attended Classical High School, and the news of her graduation made the July 20, 1901, edition of a hometown paper, The Colored American.

“She intends to enter upon a college course next fall,” they wrote. Instead they could have written: “She intends to make Brown University history.”

Among the many women for whom Robinson paved the way was younger sister Cora, who graduated in 1909, according to the Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Both women, having benefitted from a college education, made careers of sharing the gift with others. After graduation, Ethel returned to Washington to teach English at Howard University, while Cora taught the subject at Tuskegee.

At Howard in 1908, Ethel Robinson helped make history all over again. As a young faculty member, she and colleague Elizabeth Appo Cook advised English student Ethel Hedgeman Lyle in her efforts to start the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first African American sorority.

Robinson continued to teach for years. A course catalog from 1914 lists her as an instructor for a composition class. Some summers she would host her mother, who came down from Providence. Julia’s comings and goings in 1911 appeared on the society pages of the Washington Bee.

Both Ethel and Cora continue to be remembered. At Tuskegee, Cora met and married an agricultural researcher named Hendrik Van Leesten. Descendants of the couple live in Providence and are the principals at The Van Leesten Group, a real estate and community development firm. Their website includes a page called “Our Legacy,” featuring Cora and Hendrik, and their offices are within a block or so of Julia’s home at 27 Beacon Ave. in Providence. Michael S. Van Leesten, one of Cora’s grandchildren, says Cora had only one son, Hendrik, and that Ethel did not have any children. She may, however, have married a man named Pineiro and moved to Europe, he said, but the family lost track of her long ago.

Ethel, meanwhile, is commemorated as the namesake of the Ethel Tremaine Robinson Foundation Inc., a charity founded in 2006 and affiliated with the Brown University Inman Page Black Alumni Council. The foundation has raised money for students, including funds to send inner-city students to Brown’s pre-college summer programs. More than a century after graduating, Ethel Robinson is still continuing to share the gift of education.