SOUTHINGTON — Curtis D. Robinson is one of the most successful African-American business owners in Connecticut, but these days it’s his work in philanthropy that keep him busy.
“Everything God has given me is beyond my dream, beyond my imagination. I never thought I would be blessed by the gift God has given me,” Robinson said.
His story began in the segregated south in the 1940s with his parents and three siblings.
“I was born in Birmingham Alabama, I’m not going to tell you the year but it was a long time ago,” Robinson said.
With his father passing at a young age, Curtis worked in order to help his mother. At 16, he began working at a local gas station.
“My job was to pump gas only thing I could do was pump gas and check the tires and wash the windshield,” Robinson said.
But one day, the owner accused Robinson of stealing tools and when Robinson told him he didn’t do it, the owner began to hit him knocking him to the ground.
"I jumped to grab his hand so he can stop hitting me and I heard this click in the back of my head”
Robinson added, the owner called him the”N” word and told him to run, which he did straight him to his mother. His mother knowing the man was connected to the Ku Klux Klan waisted no time and gathers all the money she had at the time? $56, and arranged for Curtis to board a bus up north to Boston. The 16-year-old had nothing but some sandwiches his mom packed and with each stop north, he noticed something he has never seen before.
“That was the first time I saw blacks and whites together. When I got Baltimore I saw blacks get on, sitting in the front of the bus which we never could sit in front of the bus,” Robinson said.
After the bus stopped in New York, he anticipated the next stop would be Boston, but it wasn’t. He realized he got off at the wrong stop in Hartford and with no place to go, he slept on a park bench in Bushnell Park.
He eventually got a job as a dishwasher at what used to be the Shoreham Hotel across from Bushnell Park which became one of his two jobs. That is until he stopped at a local corner store one day where the owner was looking to sell.
"I said really so I went home and I thought about it and I said boy if I buy this I won’t have to work these two jobs for the rest of my life,” Robinson said.
At just 18 at the time, Robinson bought his first business a corner store on Capen street in Hartford. Then came other properties and businesses. 15 years later, Robinson bought a hotel building in town and turned it into a successful nightclub.
“And people used to say how do you know how to fix this dishwasher when it broke and I didn’t tell them I was there when they put it in,”
The teen who fled for his life and arrived in Hartford with nothing in his pocket bought the same hotel across the street from the benches he slept on.
Today, Robinson is owner and president of C&R Development Company with businesses like parking garages and airport gift shops at Bradley International. Along with his wife Sheila, he spends his time giving back to the community that gave so much to him.
His donation of $1 million launched the Curtis D. Robinson Men's Health Institute at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in 2010. Just recently his donation is helping launch a business and innovation program at the Hebrew school of New England in West Hartford.
“He has never forgotten what the Hartford area has done for him, and he has been someone who very generous to the community,” Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz said.
For Robinson, he said it’s never been about the recognition but remembering where it all started.