The life and achievements of Paul Robeson were center stage this month in Princeton as residents in the area celebrated his life through a week of remembrance.
A wreath laying ceremony on April 9 at the Paul Robeson bust outside the Arts Council of Princeton capped off the week of remembrance, along with a walking tour of the Robeson sites in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood, which followed the ceremony.
“I think Paul Robeson is extremely important for what he stood for and all that he accomplished. Considering the time period he was alive, the things he was able to do are incredible and is a lasting legacy which I think is extremely important,” Mayor Mark Freda said. “I hope people take away the opportunity to research and learn about his history. The things he stood for and fought for are still relevant today, kind of unfortunate, but it is nice to have such a renowned figure connected to our community and someone we all so proud of.”
Robeson grew up in Princeton and would achieve excellence and notoriety academically as an All-American athlete, singer, actor and political activist. At age 17 in 1915, he earned a full scholarship to Rutgers University.
According to the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, Robeson overcame harassment to win 15 letters in four varsity sports at Rutgers.
“I am a great admirer of Paul Robeson. When you use the word ‘Renaissance man’ he really was. An athlete, a singer, actor and humanitarian, and he always stood up for his beliefs and I always thought it was wonderful that Princeton honors his legacy,” said Tamara Jakub of Lawrenceville. “We really do need to remember all of the people who came before us and really paved a way for a better society.”
Robeson would reach Columbia Law School and graduate, then not only be admitted to the bar, but join a law firm in New York during 1923. His career as a lawyer was short-lived due to racial conflict and issues.
“Robeson showed the world that Black people are just as excellent as anyone else and basically reminded America that the whole way we were living, the whole concept of racism and the way it got into our social and political structure, is garbage and they knew it,” Councilman Dwaine Williamson said.
Robeson would pivot to acting and successfully secure work through the mid-1920s and the 1930s. He would perform in films such as “The Emperor Jones” and “Song of Freedom,” along with his onstage performances as Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
“So Robeson represented that despite all of the negativities, racism and debilitating factors of it, you can still be an excellent human being. He did that in all aspects, whether it was in academics, whether it was his outspokenness, his talent and athleticism,” Williamson said.
The successful actor, academic and athlete would start to shape his political activism in the late 1930s. Robeson refused to appear in segregated theaters and went on to march on the picket line in support of the Dodge workers strike in Windsor, Ontario, according to the Paul Robeson House of Princeton.
“We have just begun a long process to familiarize even this community with Paul and his work,” said President Ben Colbert of Paul Robeson House of Princeton’s Board of Directors. “We have always known that he was born here, but it has been hard for people to fully understand the magnitude of his impact and commitment to excellence. He was excellent in all of his endeavors and gave back in ways we are just discovering.”
For his political beliefs and activism, Robeson would have his Unites States passport revoked in 1950. He would be branded a communist and his reputation was ruined at the time. Robeson would get his passport back eight years later in 1958.
He passed away in 1976 at age 77.
“The social service aspects of Robeson’s life have not been emphasized as much as they should be. He was forced (into) exile really because of his beliefs and (he was) adamant that he was going to serve the interests of Black, Brown and poor people,” Colbert said. “That was an aside to his acting, his presentations, theater and the like. He had to sacrifice his career for his beliefs, but kept to it. There is a popular notion he was a communist, but when you look and listen to the actual dialogue you discover that he embraced principles that he thought we should have here in our country.”
The tour, which followed the ceremony, started with the birthplace of Robeson at 110 Witherspoon St. Renovations are being conducted on the house that served as the manse (house occupied by a minister of a Presbyterian Church) for Robeson’s father Rev. William Robeson.
According to the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, once the renovation is complete the second floor of the building will serve as transitional housing for vulnerable citizens, visiting activists, students and scholars.
“We have been at this since September of 2005, when the church repurchased the building next door. We have been working to first of all pay that mortgage and are in the process of renovating the house for public use,” Colbert said. “It has one unique feature, that it has housing which could be used by low-income individuals and those in need, also scholars and students. It is temporary housing. We want to encourage particularly Black and Brown people to consider living in Princeton.”
Nails from the trim boards of the building were handed out to those on the tour as pieces of history for people to take home with them.
The tour would also include a visit to the grave of Robeson’s parents and the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.
“The continued legacy of Paul Robeson is a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do here in Princeton, and whole lot of work to do in towns outside of Princeton, so that is what he represents for me,” Williamson said. “I would hope that people would be open-minded enough to be aware of what Paul Robeson represents. For many people you can be so comfortable that you do not care, but comfort to me can be so disastrous because it keeps people from doing better.”
He added that he hopes folks can think at a higher level, see that they have something to contribute to the whole world being better, and at least the whole world having basic needs and security, access to proper healthcare, education and housing.