“More Than the Voice”

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.”

Paul Robeson’s birthplace at 110 Witherspoon Street, which is now the Paul Robeson House of Princeton. (Photo by Douglas Wallack)

Born in Princeton

Robeson was born on April 9, 1898. At that time his parents lived at the building that is now the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, at 110 Witherspoon Street.

Satterfield notes that Robeson’s father, the Rev. William Drew Robeson (1844-1918), was a runaway slave who escaped from North Carolina to Pennsylvania three years after the Emancipation Proclamation. After working as a laborer, he enrolled at Lincoln University. He received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1876. While at Lincoln University he met Paul’s mother, Maria Louisa Bustill (1853-1904), a teacher. Satterfield notes that Bustill came from a prominent African American and Quaker family who lived in Philadelphia.

The elder Robeson was a minister at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church from 1880 until 1901, at which point he was dismissed “because he had been speaking out about racial injustice,” Swindall explains. The family subsequently lived in Westfield, and later in Somerville, New Jersey.

As a young boy in Princeton, Paul Robeson attended church with his father “on the corner of Quarry and Witherspoon streets,” Satterfield says. “He attended the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children, that was on the corner of Witherspoon and MacLean streets. My grandmother, Annie VanZant Moore May, was his primary teacher.”

Satterfield emphasizes that at that time Princeton “was a totally segregated and Jim Crow town.” She says that Robeson “loved his Princeton community because of the loving and caring families and friends; however, he hated the racial discrimination that he and his family faced.”

The Paul Robeson House of Princeton’s board president, Ben Colbert, says, “We acquired a very important document that was found in the floorboards above the kitchen, or the floorboards of the bedroom above it. It was a bus pass that was awarded to William, Paul’s oldest brother, so that he could attend high school in Trenton. Colored students could not attend the high school in Princeton. The importance of the bus ticket to attend a high school in another town brings to light the fact that the Robesons were subject to the discriminatory laws of the time.”

Michael says that Robeson “was worshipful of his father.” Satterfield agrees, “He used to hear his father’s melodious voice. I think a lot of his singing and his activism was because of the influence that his father, whom he loved dearly, had on him.”

Paul Robeson in uniform as a member of the Rutgers University football team, the Scarlet Knights.

Athletics

A component of Robeson’s activism is linked to his athletic accomplishments, which included winning 15 varsity letters in four sports at Rutgers University — distinguishing himself in football, basketball, baseball, and track. After college he became an assistant football coach at Lincoln University, and played professionally for the Akron Indians (now the Akron Pros).

In 1943 Robeson lobbied for the integration of baseball. Swindall observes, “He came to that conversation as an athlete, and also as a performer, saying, ‘there was no segregation when I was performing Othello. We need to start breaking down these barriers.’”

Leslie remarks, “He was an outstanding college athlete. Today, we have athletes stepping forward in Robeson’s footsteps and making a powerful statement. ‘If you have a platform, you must speak. You can’t be silent. You must be bold. If you’re silent, you are complicit.’ I would like people to understand the inspiring, pioneering actions of Paul Robeson. At a time when Black people were being lynched, he stood up for justice.”

Constitutional Law Scholar

Leslie notes that Robeson’s 1919 Rutgers thesis, a copy of which resides at the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, “took on citizenship.” Titled “The Fourteenth Amendment, The Sleeping Giant of the American Constitution,” it describes the amendment as a “vital part of American Constitutional Law” whose “provisions must be conscientiously interpreted so that through it … the American people shall develop a higher sense of constitutional morality.”

Robeson was “hired by a prestigious law firm in New York. Unfortunately, the secretaries would not do his work, and … referred to him with [a racial epithet],” Michael says. “When the law firm offered to set him up [with] a small storefront, in Harlem,” he declined, because ”he knew that his clients would not get the same benefits of the law firm that they would get if he was in the office, with all of the resources available.”

Scene from “Othello” with Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild Production, Broadway.

Einstein’s Guest

Robeson’s acting career included appearances as the title role in Othello, in London and on Broadway (where he was the first African American to play the role with a white supporting cast), and at McCarter Theatre. He also established himself as a concert artist, performing spirituals such as “Steal Away” and “Were You There?” and other folk songs in the African American tradition.

In 1935 Robeson visited Princeton to give a concert at McCarter Theatre. (As Bill Lockwood notes in McCarter Theatre Center: Celebrating 75 Years, earlier that year Robeson’s Princeton debut had taken place when he sang a benefit for the Witherspoon YMCA.) Michael says, “He could not stay in the hotels, because of segregation. But [Albert] Einstein said to him, ‘Any time that you’re in Princeton, come and stay with me.’”

Leslie adds, “Einstein admired Paul Robeson. He was a Jew escaping Nazi Germany, and yet he was shocked and surprised that there was any prejudice against someone as talented and important as Paul Robeson, simply because he was Black.”

In 1936 Robeson appeared in the film version of the musical Show Boat (which composer Jerome Kern and wordsmiths Oscar Hammerstein II and P.G. Wodehouse had adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name), having been in the Broadway production four years earlier. Although “Ol’ Man River” became one of his signature songs, he was dissatisfied with his character, which Swindall observes was a “trope of the ‘subservient African American.’”

Robeson altered some of Hammerstein’s lyrics for the song. For the film, this entailed cutting a racist epithet. Subsequently, for concert performances of the song, Robeson made more substantial changes, which heighten the singer’s position of strength (and consequently, that of African Americans and workers). For example, “You get a little drunk” became “you show a little grit;” and “I’m tired of living” became “I must keep fighting.”

But Swindall adds that Robeson’s name was listed “with the top actors. A Black actor getting that kind of billing so prominently, in 1936, just didn’t happen.” Additionally, “He negotiated a strong salary. He used that money to work on other projects” such as “a play written by the great West Indian writer C.L.R. James, Toussaint Louverture, about the leader of the slave rebellion in Haiti. The next year (1937) he co-founded the Council on African Affairs. So having that money in his pocket gave him more flexibility … to do other kinds of work that was more politically engaged.”

Robeson admired the Soviet Union; he once said that Russia was a place where he could “walk in full human dignity.“ In 1949 Robeson performed and spoke at the World Congress of Partisans of Peace, in Paris. American reporters, commentators, and politicians misinterpreted his remarks to mean that African Americans would not fight with the United States in a war against the USSR.

Consequently he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was subsequently blacklisted. A 2011 Smithsonian Magazine article, “What Paul Robeson Said,” describes the full extent of the repercussions, which all but destroyed his career as a performer: “Robeson’s name was stricken from the college All-America football teams. Newsreel footage of him was destroyed, recordings were erased and there was a clear effort in the media to avoid any mention of his name.”

In 1950 the State Department refused to renew Robeson’s passport, in reaction to his refusal to sign an affidavit disassociating himself with the Communist Party, and pledging loyalty the United States. (His passport was not renewed until after the Supreme Court’s 1958 ruling on Kent v. Dulles, which affirmed painter Rockwell Kent’s right to travel.)

With the support of American and Canadian Labor unions, Robeson performed concerts at the International Peace Arch, on the border between Washington State and British Columbia.

The inauguration of the “Answering New Zealand” radio programs, aired by The Voice of America,1942. Seated from left are David Jenkins, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, Deems Taylor, Walter Nash, and George Palmer.

The Paul Robeson House of Princeton: Continuing a Legacy of Activism

In 2017 Town Topics (a sister publication of Princeton Magazine) reported that a nonprofit group, the Paul Robeson House Initiative, had filed plans to renovate Robeson’s birthplace, which is at the corner of Witherspoon and Green streets.

Colbert explains, “We’re doing a careful renovation; it is not a teardown. What we’re doing is restoring it to the early 18th century architectural style that it was originally, including reinstalling a front porch, which at some point in its past was removed.”

Leslie notes the considerable effort made to get the town of Princeton to approve the redesign plan. She credits “Kevin Wilkes of Princeton Design Guild. He and our lawyer, Daniel Haggerty, pushed that forward in a thoughtful and capable way.”

“The house was repurchased by Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 2005,” Satterfield says. “It was purchased so that it could remain as part of our heritage, and as a beacon of history and justice in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, and the Princeton community.”

Colbert says the Paul Robeson House of Princeton Board hopes to “complete the project within the next 18 to 24 months. He acknowledges, “When we began, we had no idea of the extent to which repairs would be required.” Leslie adds, “It’s also contingent on how well our fundraising goes, because we are essentially paying for the work through the good graces of our donors.”

“The house will continue to offer temporary housing for low income people, and those of modest means seeking to settle in Princeton. The goal is to maintain the diversity that is characteristic of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and throughout Princeton,” Colbert says. “We have had some success at this. In 2007 the Robeson House hosted an immigrant family from Eritrea. The family found employment [and] lived in the House long enough to qualify for affordable housing in Princeton.”

Leslie adds that another section “will be set aside for a commemoration of Paul Robeson’s life, and will include artifacts and a gallery.” Colbert elaborates, “There are materials, like that bus pass, that will be on permanent display. We have received archival material, mostly recordings, from people who knew Paul Robeson, and who are collectors of his repertoire. We also have a wonderful collection of materials from the Witherspoon-Jackson community.”

Colbert sees the Paul Robeson House of Princeton as an extension of Robeson’s legacy of activism. He believes that there is a “resurgence of interest in Paul Robeson, given the times that we are in. He and his father were pioneers in seeking to be vocal about the need for social equity, and for making people feel welcomed in a community.”