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Retiring Bremerton Councilwoman: Her 'brother's keeper'
“They taught us to be connected in our community,” she said of her elders in Florida. “When I came here I wanted to do the same thing.”
As the founder of the Black Historical Society of Kitsap County and a city councilwoman for seven years, people think Robinson is a Bremerton native, she said. She might as well be — she arrived in Bremerton in 1966 as a Navy wife and, working as a Navy wife ombudsman, started a career of volunteerism and service in Bremerton she maintained for decades.
Entering the final stretch as a city councilwoman next year, Robinson plans to retire when her term is up and move back home to Pensacola.
“I’ve paid my dues. I’m going to close this chapter to the book,” Robinson said. She plans to build a house on property that belonged to her family, adding, “I hope I can stand the weather down there.”
Robinson came to Bremerton as many women have, landing there after living on several Naval bases on the East Coast with her family. She moved into the former Eastpark Navy Housing in 1966 and raised four children and a niece in Bremerton. She then lived in a few houses in Manette and invited her siblings to live in Bremerton, Sherry McGrady and Paul Thompson. Thompson has sold hot dogs near the ferry terminal for 13 years.
Several months after moving to Bremerton, Robinson started working at Naval Base Kitsap— Keyport, beginning as a worker trainee and performing several different jobs over the years as a mechanic, plastic processing equipment operator and quality assurance specialist, in addition to her role as a counselor there for 15 years.
“The more that came to me, the more I wanted to do,” Robinson said of her 29 years working in Keyport.
Robinson also co-wrote the history manual for the Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station in Keyport, titled “Torpedo Town U.S.A.” It was a reflection of her interest in local history, which she pursued for decades and counts among her best accomplishments in Kitsap County.
Active in the Bremerton chapter of the NAACP, Robinson was always interested in black history. She started her research in 1972, going through old newspapers after work in Keyport and exploring libraries and cemeteries throughout the Puget Sound. There wasn’t much written about the contributions of blacks in Kitsap at the time and she wanted to uncover Kitsap County’s black heritage.
No one really thought black people were around for long in Kitsap County, Robinson said. But she has traced the lives of local African-Americans back to 1857, when the first black pioneer John Garrison came to Kitsap.
Since then, Robinson founded the Black Historical Society of Kitsap in 1982, now located on Park Avenue. Through the society, she has coordinated educational history programs with schools, something she says has contributed to Kitsap’s sense of collective history.
“I think that was a vision from the Lord for me to do that in the community,” she said.
Robinson also wanted more black people active in the Bremerton community and helped recruit five black teachers from colleges across the U.S. to help integrate the schools.
When Cherry Rachal was recruited by Robinson to teach in Bremerton, she didn’t know anything about the Pacific Northwest.
“I had never heard of Bremerton,” she said. “When she said Washington, I thought they were talking about Washington, D.C.”
Rachal, a native of Oklahoma City, came to teach at the old West High School in 1969 and never left Bremerton. She credits Robinson with helping to make Bremerton her home.
“She’s the first friend that I had when I came into Bremerton,” Rachal said. “She’s just someone I’m proud to call my best friend.”
Now that Robinson is leaving, the future of the Black Historical Society is uncertain. Robinson hopes grant money can keep it open, but if outside money does not come through, it may have to fold or possible merge with the Kitsap County Historical Society. Currently, Robinson pays $1,000 per month out-of-pocket to keep it open.
After working in Keyport, Robinson went to work in at a train factory in Spain in 1999, where she and one other woman were the first women to have worked at the factory. After a few years there, she worked in security at the Sea-Tac Airport.
In 2001, she was encouraged by former city Councilman David Farr to run for the Bremerton City Council to represent District 6, which covers the Anderson Cove neighborhood, Bremerton High School and Olympic College. After decades in Manette, she moved into the district in 1992, despite her one-time pledges she would never move to West Bremerton because of its rougher reputation.
“I always said I was never going to move to the West side,” Robinson said, laughing.
In 2001, Robinson knocked on every door in her district, she said, talking to residents about their concerns. She lost to former councilman Eric Younger that year, but tried again and won in 2003.
“I think people realized that I really wanted to do this job,” she said. “They looked at me as a person who would really be for the people.”
Carol Arends, a city councilwoman since 1998, said it’s Robinson’s friendly rapport with her constituents that has allowed her to be an effective leader.
“Dianne has been a very fun person to work with,” she said. “She’s very at ease speaking with people.”
During her nearly seven years on the City Council, Robinson said one of her proudest accomplishments is helping to advance the downtown redevelopment efforts. She remembers downtown as it was when she first moved to town in the ‘60s, when “downtown was just booming,” with teenagers cruising the streets in their cars and a robust business district - something that was lost as Silverdale developed into a retail hub.
“To see all those places leave the community, it was really something,” Robinson said.
There are a few things that will be left undone in her mind as she vacates her post next year. She wishes the city had focused more on developing low-income housing than condominiums. She wants to see the Port Washington Marina and Anderson Cove waterfronts in her district given some of the attention downtown received.
But when she reflects on the positive changes in her district, such as the decrease in crime in Anderson Cove, she is content with her time on the Council.
“I think Anderson Cove has come a long way,” she said. “Police were out there all the time. I think it’s much better.”
Robinson’s work will not be done when she moves to Florida, however. She is already planning to help revitalize an old community house in her hometown so it can host some new public programs.
“Every time I say I’m going to sit down and rest, I always find something to do,” she said.
When Robinson leaves, Rachal doesn’t think Bremerton will easily find a replacement. She is not just a public advocate for Bremerton residents, but privately a generous friend and neighbor.
“Dianne never meets a stranger,” Rachal said. She described Robinson’s house as “Grand Central Station” - filled with people, where anyone who needs a hand, a bed or a meal could come and find help.
“She is truly her brother’s keeper,” Rachal said. “She’s just a person when she sees a need or a cause, she rises to the occasion.”