Publicity photo of Paul Robeson from the 1930s.
Paul Robeson’s Legacy of Activism
By Donald H. Sanborn III
In “Becoming Anti-Racist,” a June 2020 essay for the Princeton Public Library’s website, the library’s executive director, Jennifer Podolsky, quotes a remark by Princeton native Paul Robeson (1898-1976). “I enjoy singing to you,” Robeson told Antonio Salemme, the sculptor who created the bust of Robeson that resides in the library. “You seem to get more than the voice, the music, the words; you know what I’m thinking, what I mean, what I feel when I sing.”
Singing was just one component of Robeson’s life. “People know him primarily as a singer, but Uncle Paul was more than a singer,” says Vernoca L. Michael, executive director of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance/Paul Robeson House & Museum in Philadelphia. Michael, who refers to Robeson as “Uncle Paul” because of a friendship between their families, describes him as the “quintessential father of the civil rights movement.” She adds, “He was an actor, activist, lawyer, author, linguist, athlete, scholar, and all-American hero.”
When Michael was a student at University of Pennsylvania, she provided transportation and performed other tasks for the Robesons. She remembers the courtesy with which she was greeted. “Uncle Paul would stand up, and, from the waist down, bow to me, ‘Good morning.’ Now, who was doing that, to a lowly student? That was the kind of man that he was, in terms of respecting all kinds of people.”Shirley Satterfield, president of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, and secretary of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, agrees. “His legacy is to respect everyone, no matter who they are.” She adds, “he was a noted scholar — and ‘scholar’ comes before ‘athlete.’”
Denyse Leslie, board vice president and managing director of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, remarks that he was “an American citizen, in all the ways one should be … there wasn’t anybody else like him. He was a true Renaissance Man!”
Dr. Lindsey R. Swindall, author of The Politics of Paul Robeson’s Othello and Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art, observes that Robeson “could speak to issues — not just as a reformer or an activist, but as somebody who has participated in so many different endeavors in his lifetime.” more