Robert “Big Rob” White III loves his community so much that he made a donation to educate our members through this publication.
Robert White III is an involved in the following organizations:
- One Love Coop LLC,
- Uplifiting Us Cooperative,
- Universal Negro Improvement Association
and the African Communities League
He is also a Block Developer Representative for Buy the Block, an organization that specializes in creating real estate investment opportunities in exploited and forgotten neighborhoods within the United States.
Big Rob, tell me a little bit about yourself. Where were you born? What was your childhood like? And please share any details that you feel are relevant to understanding you as the man you are today.
I was born February 18, 1980, in St. Louis, Missouri. I spent 354 days on the Missouri side of the river in St. Louis, just nine days prior to my first birthday. My maternal grandmother passed away and she owned a house in Brooklyn, Illinois (Brooklyn, Illinois, is located two miles north of East St. Louis, Illinois and three miles northeast of downtown St. Louis, Missouri). It was paid off, but none of my mother’s siblings wanted the house. Since my parents were a young couple living in an apartment, my parents decided to move to the Illinois side of the river into the house.
I grew up in my grandmother’s house until the summer before my senior year in high school. My parents were looking to find a better place to live for six to seven years. They wanted to move into a house where there was a better school district, but it was a challenge due to limited resources and poor credit scores. Finally, the summer before my senior year, we moved back to the Missouri side of the river (St. Louis area) and they were able to get a house. I credit growing up in Brooklyn for instilling in me a strong propensity for overcoming adversity, a sense of community values, and a high regard for racial and cultural pride.
Who were the most influential people in your life? How did they influence you?
My working-class parents. They instilled the value of education in me at a young age. My father’s parents were sharecroppers from the Yazoo, Mississippi, area. My father and his siblings were the first generation to grow up and live in the “North” (St. Louis, Missouri). My mother’s parents owned a local popular confectionery in the Village of Brooklyn, Illinois. My parents told me that I essentially had three options after high school. I could go to work, go to the military, or go to college. College is the option they promoted the most.
My mother is a retired educator. She worked with preschoolers, so she was very influential in my committing my life to serving and working in education for the youth. My father was a factory worker. He worked for a company called Hussmann Refrigeration. They make the industrial size freezers that we see in supermarkets. My father was a factory worker for 40 years. He was a sheet-metal worker.
My father, as a factory worker, had to deal with some grueling work conditions. For example, if it was 90 degrees outside, he was working inside where it was 95 to 105 degrees because the machines were running, but there was no air conditioning in parts of the factory. He faced grueling, back-breaking labor and a lot of health issues as a result of the factory work. My father made it plain. “Go to college and get a job where they pay you to think because this manual labor isn’t worth it.”
In addition to my parents, there were so many people in my church and my community who were influential in my life. I can honestly say that I had a decent village and support system. People saw something in me, early on, and they constantly worked to affirm me. They constantly worked to create environments and circumstances that were nurturing to me.
I grew up in a small community of 1200 people. We didn’t have a public library. We didn’t have a community center. We only had 50 high school students and about 250 students total (K-12). We didn’t have a lot of social clubs. We didn’t have a yearbook. We didn’t have a lot of options to keep us out of trouble.
My family moved to St. Louis the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I went from a class of about 12 to 400+ students. It was a whole different ball game and world, and I had to adjust quickly. My transition into my senior year of high school was way more challenging than my freshman year of college.
I grew up in the ‘hood during the height of the crack epidemic , which was bad in the entire St. Louis metro area. It impacted me in a lot of ways. I had uncles, cousins, and others close to me addicted to the drug. It showed me what the hard reality of being a black person in America with a lack of opportunity and resources was like.
Because of that environment, my parents sheltered me a lot. My friends were exposed to sex, violence, and drug-dealing as early as 10 years old, and my peers would make fun of me because I wasn’t involved in street activities. I was a square, or a nerd, because I had a lot of people telling me that the street life wasn’t for me. I often joke and tell people that being a fat and shy nerd in the ‘hood wasn’t a good life. I was a “Blerd” even before there was a term to describe a part of my reality.
To have active parents that deliberately sheltered me from that impacted my growth and development. It was good because I wasn’t exposed to a lot of things I shouldn’t have been, but it was bad because I was naive and lacked some common-sense street smarts that I needed while living in the ‘hood.