OLEAN — Vernon Robinson Jr., who was appointed Olean’s first Black member of Common Council on Tuesday, remembers the March in Olean after the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Robinson, 49, who has lived in Olean for the past 30 years, heard about the march, but knowing the city’s demographics, didn’t think there would be that many people participating.
Then he saw a Facebook Live webcast of those who were involved in the beginning of the march and drove up to see for himself.
“I was shocked to see several hundred people there,” Robinson said. “I was happy. I got a chill. I honked the horn and waved to thank people out there doing it.”
As the city’s first Black alderman, Robinson is as much a symbol of the local Black Lives Matter movement as are the protesters of Floyd’s death at the hands by Minneapolis police.
Robinson, storekeeper for National Grid’s Olean, Franklinville and Wellsville service centers, was urged to seek the Ward 6 seat after Ronald DaPolito resigned recently. Robinson gave in to pressure from his wife, Michelle Clemons Robinson, a teacher at Washington West Elementary School, and contacted Olean Mayor Bill Aiello to express his interest.
Raised by his grandmother in southeast Washington, D.C., under very trying circumstances, Robinson came to Olean after a four-year stint with the U.S. Marines to court the woman who would become his wife. The mother of his Marine buddy, Justin Rhodes of Bolivar, set them up.
Robinson received an associate’s degree in business administration from Jamestown Community College and a bachelor’s degree in applied management from Franklin University.
Aiello said Robinson was the unanimous decision among four candidates of a three-person nomination committee. At Tuesday’s Council meeting, all other six aldermen joined in supporting his nomination by Aiello.
“I was touched by the process,” Robinson said. “Everyone sponsored my nomination. I was deeply moved. I wanted to tear up, but I held off. I can’t express how humble I felt when they all sponsored me. I will do my best.”
Aiello said he was grateful that a number of residents were interested in the alderman position.
“Mr. Robinson’s work experience, veteran status and volunteer work within the community made him an outstanding candidate for the appointment and I look forward to working with him,” the mayor said.
Robinson felt the presence of his grandmother Tuesday night.
“She would be ecstatic,” he said in an interview Friday with the Olean Times Herald. “She’d probably cry. With everything the way it is, she would be so proud of me.”
Robinson’s grandmother died when he was 12.
After Council approved the nomination Tuesday, Alderwoman Linda Witte said, “It’s about time.”
Robinson agreed and said he was ready to go to work.
A cousin who raised Robinson after his grandmother’s death wrote him to say how proud she was, and how proud his grandmother would be.
Other family members living in the South are “happy for what I’ve accomplished and done with my life,” he said. He and his wife have a grown son, Joshua, and a daughter, Aaliya.
Robinson, who lays claim to being a good storyteller, began to write some of his stories at the urging of friends.
In 2014, he self-published “A Change Is Going To Come,” a collection of his life stories from the streets of Washington to his time in the Marines.
They are inspirational stories by someone who sets goals for himself and goes about accomplishing those goals: “I wanted to share stories with other people from broken homes and use my experience to break that mold.”
Olean’s newest alderman is neither a Republican nor Democrat. He’s not registered with any political party, making him a true independent.
“I believe if you are going to vote, you should vote with your heart,” he said. “That’s how I’m going to vote.”
The late Allegany mayor and Cattaraugus County legislator Rick Lamberson often joked that Robinson would make a good mayor. “He said I needed to be an alderman first and get into politics.”
When the Ward 6 seat became vacant, dragged his feet a little as friends were encouraging him to seek the Council seat. His wife pushed him to call Aiello and send a letter seeking an interview.
“I’m a Marine,” he said. “We’re blunt about how we feel.”
Will the Council understand his bluntness?
“I’ve learned to filter it more over the years,” he smiled through his face mask during the interview on his patio. “They are a great group,” he said of the Council. “I can’t wait to work on things with them.”
Robinson said, “I bring a different way of thinking. I have a different outlook on a lot of things. With my outside-the-box thinking, we can come together and create some new ideas.”
As far as goals as an alderman, Robinson said he would like to help bring back industry and jobs to the Olean area, help continue to beautify the city and find ways to make it a better community.