Everyone in Southbridge knows the name 'Balagun.' This is the quest to honor his legacy


Jose Ignacio Castaneda Perez


Everyone knew William “Balagun” Robinson.

Countless people shouted his name as Balagun – how everyone in the community knew him – drove through the streets of Wilmington. A beep and a wave were always given in return.

As longtime residents recall, there wasn’t a block he could drive down where someone didn’t know his name.


Balagun was renowned throughout the city, but was legendary in Southbridge– one of Wilmington’s oldest communities and his birthplace in April 1944. Over the years, he became a celebrated figure in the neighborhood for his selflessness, advocacy and mentorship of the community’s youth.


Balagun helped create the breakfast program in Southbridge that provided food for the neighborhood’s children to make sure they didn’t go to school hungry. He became the “ultimate big brother” to the kids in the community – teaching lessons about their history at The Neighborhood House and giving them rides to school over the river.


“His heart lied within the community,” said Regina Robinson, his wife.


Following Balagun’s death in June, family and friends submitted a proposal to rename Eden Park into “Balagun Park,” in an effort to memorialize his significance and the impact he had on the community.


“Our mission is to preserve the legacy of this great individual who gave himself unselfishly to bring equality to the lives of the Southbridge community in which he lived and died,” the proposal reads.


On a recent afternoon, Balagun’s wife, brother and close friends gathered in a dimly lit living room to remember him, retelling precious memories in hopes that they might reflect the man he was. The conversation ebbed and flowed between rambunctious, concurrent discussions and sober moments of silence.


Tears gave way to laughter as the semi-circle of people remembered the man they knew and the legacy he left behind.


Young warrior

Balagun, which means “young warrior,” was a fierce advocate for change – often holding rallies at Eden Park to shed light on injustices affecting his community.

In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and during the nine-month National Guard occupation of Wilmington, he became part of the “Wilmington 8” – a group of eight men who were charged with assaulting two FBI agents in the city.


He was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.


The community, however, offered unrelenting support for Balagun to be released or for his sentence to be reduced. In 1972, on the anniversary of the assault, a petition was presented to the Assistant U.S. Attorney General who was the prosecuting attorney at Balagun’s trial, according to an article from The Morning News.


In the petition, 186 people offered themselves as “hostages in return for the freedom of William H. Robinson,” the article read.


Numerous flyers advocating for the release of Balagun began to circulate throughout Wilmington. The phrase “free Balagun” could often be heard in the corridors of Southbridge.


Several community leaders, alongside the Wilmington Bail Committee, also fought for his release, according to the article.


At one point, Balagun's younger brother Gary Robinson recalled,countless students staged a walkout from The Bancroft School and walked to Rodney Square to hold a rally calling for the release of Balagun.


“The whole school, they weren’t worried about getting suspended or nothing – they just up and walked out,” said Robinson, who attended Bancroft at the time.


“I said ‘[Balagun] really has some power.’”


Balagun served 10 years in prison before returning to Southbridge, where he worked at The Neighborhood House alongside community leader Barbara Hicks. He also worked as a groundskeeper at Ezion-Mount Carmel United Methodist Church where he would meet Regina, the woman who would later go on to become his wife.


“I don't think he was mad at the time that he served because he knew he was doing the right thing and it was for the right cause,” saidBob Cannon, a Southbridge native and longtime friend of Balagun.


At his memorial service, which was held at Barbara Hicks Park in Southbridge, four of the original Wilmington 8 showed up to pay their respects.


"[Balagun] is the reason why people cherish Southbridge so much – it's because of what he instilled in us," Cannon said.


‘Always an inspiration'


A laminated picture of Balagun from his memorial service sat tucked inside of a large mirror that hung in Richard King’s living room.

“In Loving Memory of BALAGUN,” the memento read. In smaller letters at the bottom of the memento, Balagun’s signature motto could be read, “Appreciate Every Day!”

The picture is a reminder for King, now the Southbridge Civic Association president, of memories with Balagun, times where the man would pick him up in the mornings to give him a ride to junior high at The Bancroft School.


Both King and Cannon remember days when they would walk to and from school. Balagun, they said, would stop at the red light at the foot of the bridge before crossing into the city and shuttle as many kids as could fit into his car to school.


“If Balagun was at that red light, coming or going, he’d say, ‘man, as many as can get in as you can,’” Cannon said. “I don’t care where he was going – he took time.”


King also recalled Balagun’s regular attendance at his football games when he was growing up. Balagun celebrated King’s tackles and yards each game, despite the team never winning.


“He was always an inspiration,” King said. “When you were down, he picked you up. You’d see that smile, it'd change your whole day.”


It wasn’t just football, either. Balagun made it a point to attend all of the sporting events of the community’s youth in order to show his support – whether it be a baseball game or a swimming meet.


“That's why you knew it was genuine, you know," Cannon said. "This cat ain't my dad but he was there when people's parents weren't even there.”


Upon returning to Southbridge, Balagun began imparting knowledge and lessons to the kids of the neighborhood. He gave lessons about respect, pride and Black history. Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Booker T. Washington were all covered at length.


“[Balagun] just taught us so much about being proud of who you are and as a people and I think that helped mold me into the man I am,” Cannon said. “I think I learned just as much from Balagun as I did in school.”


'I love you too'

In 2018, after about 16 years of being together, 75-year-old Balagun married Regina, the love of his life. They had been in and out of each other’s lives for about 43 years – reconnecting every few years.


“I loved him and he loved me unconditionally,” Regina said. “He was my heart. Always.”


Almost three years after his marriage, Balagun died at the age of 77 on June 23. On the morning of Balagun’s death, Gary had the last conversation he would ever have with his brother.


“[Balagun] said, ‘I love you, man’ and I said ‘I love you too, big brother’ and that was it," Gary said. "I never thought that would be the last time I would hear his voice."


At Balagun’s memorial service, droves of people filled Barbara Hicks Park to celebrate his life, only for it to be cut short when it began to rain. The group of family and friends gathered in the living room months later, however, agreed that the rain was a sign of him ascending to heaven.


"[Balagun] touched everybody in this community in some kind of way," Gary Robinson said.


The semi-circle of loved ones continued to reminisce about Balagun as the night went on – the conversation rising with laughter and falling with contemplation.

The memorial picture of Balagun rested in the mirror that hung on the wall next to his wife, watching over the group as they kept his memory alive.



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