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Paul Robeson’s 125th
The 125th anniversary of Paul Robeson’s birth on April 9, 2023 will be celebrated nationally and internationally and honors his enduring legacy as an artist, athlete, scholar, and, above all, as a passionate advocate for human rights. Here in Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Robeson’s birthplace and home until he was 13 years old, we have a special duty to not only remember Robeson and the ideals he fought for, but to continue his fight to forge a “new American spirit” in which people of all backgrounds could succeed, so long as they worked hard.
This was the topic of Robeson’s farewell commencement address in his last public appearance at Rutgers College before graduating in June 1919. Titled “The New Idealism,” the speech thanked World War I veterans for securing their freedom, yet highlighted the challenges still facing the “less favored race.” He appealed to the more privileged to help “relieve the manifest distress of your fellows” so as to realize the primary “task of civilization – the achievement of happiness and the institution of community spirit.” Spoken decades before the civil rights movement by only the third African American to attend Rutgers, Robeson’s words may have seemed naïve, but they reflect his confidence in his ability to uplift not only himself but all African Americans.
Robeson in football uniform at Rutgers, c. 1919
Remembering what his father, a former slave who had become a pastor, had told him – that on the field, in the classroom or anywhere else, “I wasn’t just there on my own,” Robeson told a reporter in 1944. “I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football and wanted to go to college, and, as their representative, I had to show that I could take whatever was handed out.”1
His courage in the face of adversity was again demonstrated when his anti-colonialist and civil rights activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 his passport was revoked. He could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Yet, he never backed down, testifying in 1956 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it.” Although his passport was reinstated in 1958, years of hardship had taken their toll, and Robeson decided to largely step out of the public eye, retiring to Philadelphia until his death in 1976.
To this day, many of Robeson’s accomplishments, particularly in the history of civil rights, remain obscured by the misleading propaganda that followed him throughout his life. If we are to remember Paul Robeson for anything, it should be for the courage and dignity with which he fought for the rights of all people while facing great adversity. Please click here to see a calendar of events for some ways you can remember Paul Robeson and celebrate his legacy in the coming weeks.
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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