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Paul Robeson’s 124th Birthday is April 9, 2022.
Robeson the Revolutionary
Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson was one of the most well-known, successful and influential figures of the 20th century. Although best known as an actor and singer for his famous role in “Show Boat,” the song “Ol’ Man River” and for his legendary interpretation of “Othello”, he was a Renaissance Man who received recognition as a cultural scholar, an outstanding athlete, an author and political activist. He was the first Black actor to play noted roles in the American Theatre. Mostly, Mr. Robeson was a leader in the war against racism in America and fascism abroad. As Gerald Horne notes in his biography of Robeson, “you cannot fully appreciate how the Jim Crow system came to an end without an understanding of the life of Paul Robeson.”
Robeson was the youngest of five children born to Reverend William Drew Robeson, a former slave and pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, a member of the prominent Philadelphia Bustill family. He was born in Princeton on April 9, 1898, at 72 Witherspoon Street (now 110 Witherspoon Street).
Robeson in football uniform at Rutgers, c. 1919
In 1907 Mr. Robeson moved with his father to Westfield, New Jersey then to Somerville, New Jersey. In 1915 he graduated from Somerville High School as an outstanding scholar and athlete. In 1919 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and a letter athlete from Rutgers University, where he was a two time first-team All-American and valedictorian. He received a law degree from Columbia University Law School and in the early 1920’s he worked with a law firm in New York City before pursuing a career in the arts and as a human rights advocate.
In his later years Robeson lived at the home of his sister, Marion, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he died on January 23, 1976. Since his death, recognition of his extraordinary achievements and activism has continued to grow. His efforts to end Apartheid in South African were posthumously rewarded in 1978 by the United Nations General Assembly. In 1980, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist won an Academy Award for best short documentary. Later, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame and American Theater Hall of Fame.
Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the Theatre Guild production of Othello (1943–44)
Despite many incredible personal successes, Robeson’s commitment to African American equality, Black liberation, workers’ rights, internationalism, peace, and socialism made him a pariah of white America; he was investigated during the McCarthy era and denied a passport by the U.S. State Department until it was restored as a result of a 1958 Supreme Court Decision, among other injustices. However, he remained unwaveringly committed to worldwide freedom, peace and brotherhood until the end of his life. With the fight for equality and justice continuing today, it is more important than ever to remember Robeson the revolutionary.
Robeson leading Moore Shipyard (Oakland, California) workers in singing the “Star Spangled Banner”, September 1942.
“Through my singing and acting and speaking I want to make freedom ring. Maybe I can touch people’s hearts better than I can their minds, with the common struggle of the common man.” -Paul Leroy Robeson
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Links to our partner organizations' events pages:
Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church
Historical Society of Princeton
WJHCS Trustees Accomplishments and Honors:
Honoree: Leighton Newlin
Date: January 5, 2022
Elected: Princeton Councilmember
Honoree: Rev. Gregory Smith
Award: Ordination and Installation as Pastor
Date: November 20, 2021
Awarded By: Second Calvary Baptist Church, Hopewell, NJ
Honoree: Shirley Satterfield
Award: Community Engagement Award
Date: November 17, 2021
Awarded By: Princeton University and Pace Center for Civic Engagement
Honoree: Shirley Satterfield
Award: Liz Erickson Impact Award
Date: October 28, 2021
Awarded By: NonProfit Connection
Honoree: Bob Hillier, FAIA
Award: Reginald F. Lewis Community Service Award for Excellence in Business
Date: February 12, 2021
Awarded By: First Baptist Church of Princeton
Honoree: Shirley A. Satterfield
Award: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award
Date: January 16, 2021
Awarded By: New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)
Honoree: Rev. David McAlpin
Award: Recognition Celebration
Date: January 30, 2021
Awarded By: Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church