PRINCETON, NJ—The birthplace and childhood home of legendary Rutgers alumnus Paul Robeson is undergoing renovations to restore its status as a local civic center.
The lead architect for the renovation, Kevin Wilkes of the Princeton Design Guild, said the physical renovation is 20% complete, and Paul Robeson House of Princeton Vice President Denyse Leslie expects to operate within the house by late 2022 or early 2023.
The house is located in Princeton’s historic Jackson-Witherspoon neighborhood, so named for the two major streets that marked its borders. Jackson Street was renamed Paul Robeson Place in 1976.
It is the oldest continually occupied African-American neighborhood in the entire state of New Jersey with renderings of maps from Princeton from the 1700’s that show the neighborhood, which was occupied by both freed blacks and enslaved blacks prior to the Revolutionary War.
A lot of physical work has been undertaken on the house over the past year.
“We’ve completed the repair of the frame and structure of the original main portion of the house,” Wilkes said.
“We still have foundation rebuild to do. We’ve put the new windows in the main portion of the house. We have a new roof on the main portion of the house. We still have two additions on the rear that were existing, that completely rotted. We took them off, we need to rebuild those.”
They will replicate a porch on its Witherspoon Street side, after discovering the shadow lines of a former porch under four levels of siding.
There will also be two handicap-accessible entrances to the building.
From working within the structure and reading local Sanborn Maps and tax maps, Wilkes now believes the house dates to the 1840’s and was salvaged from other parts.
“I believe that because there are three major structural frames, what are known as barn bents,” Wilkes said. “These are the structural portions of a barn. And it’s clear by the mortise and tenon joints that this was previously assembled in a different location, because there are notches and mortises that are not presently being used in this frame. And nobody would have put them in after the building was erected there.”
Located at 124 Witherspoon Street, the home was the manse of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, where Robeson’s father, Rev. William Drew Robeson, was a minister, and where the Paul Robeson House of Princeton currently maintains an office at 122 Witherspoon Street.
Paul Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, inside the 110 Witherspoon Street home to Rev. William Drew Robeson, 52, and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, 45.
The valedictorian and All-American football player in the Rutgers University Class of 1919, Paul Robeson would go on to achieve worldwide fame as an actor, singer and civil rights activist.
Robeson was the seventh and final child in the family, following three older brothers and one sister, and two more that passed in infancy.
Robeson’s father was born a slave in North Carolina in 1844 and escaped North during the Civil War, where he served and was paid in the Union Army as a laborer.
Both William and Maria attended Lincoln College in Pennsylvania, where they met. They married in 1878.
Robeson tragically lost his mother to a kitchen fire accident when he was 6 years old.
“Paul grew up as a motherless child, but a very much beloved member of the Princeton, New Jersey downtown area,” said Leslie, whose organization has championed the renovation effort.
Robeson’s friend and biographer, Lloyd L. Brown, later described the import of the neighborhood in his biography of Robeson, “The Young Paul Robeson.”
“As Paul remembered it,” Brown wrote, “there was something mystical and strangely prophetic in the community’s attitude toward him. The people seemed to feel there was something special about him, that he was somehow destined for big things in life.”
The Rev. William Drew Robeson served as minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church from 1879 through 1901, a period in which all the Robeson children were born.
William was removed from his post in 1901 under dubious reasons and despite the protestations of his congregation.
Ironically, it was the Presbytery of New Brunswick that facilitated his removal as minister.
Also in 1901, the Robeson family moved out of the manse at 110 Witherspoon Street and around the corner to 13 Green Street.
They lived there until 1907, when William moved the family to Westfield and subsequently to Somerville, where Robeson would graduate from high school in 1915.
Thus Robeson’s presence in his birth home is only a tiny element of the history of the home, which existed for 50 years before then and nearly 125 years since.
But the home served as great a purpose to those in need as Robeson would undertake in his own life, and will continue doing so in its next iteration.
“For much of the 20th century, that house was a boarding house, a rooming house, and it was cut up into 10 little bedrooms,” Wilkes said. “It’s a really interesting history of that house as a boarding house in Princeton, when black day laborers lived there in little small rooms and took their meals downstairs in the kitchen.”
Artifacts from that period, and some found from the time of the Robeson’s, will be on display in a new handicap-accessible basement gallery being constructed by the Princeton Design Guild, to showcase the life of Paul and the community.
“I found a lot more artifacts from that portion of its life than from the Robeson family. We found 200-300 artifacts of personal possessions of mostly men who lived there in the boarding house phase in the 20th century,” Wilkes said.
Among the three or four of Robeson’s artifacts that were discovered on the premises are an envelope addressed to his mother, and a trolley pass for his oldest brother, Bill Robeson, to go to high school in Trenton.
Bill was prohibited from going to school in Princeton because of segregation.
The renovated Paul Robeson House of Princeton will be both open to the public as well as residential.
The main floor of the building will contain a community meeting room and offices for non-profits. The basement gallery will include artifacts, recordings and other archival material from Robeson’s life and from the neighborhood.
The second floor will be residential, carrying on the house’s former traditions. “There will be three bedrooms independent of each other, with a shared kitchen on the second floor. It will be transitional emergency-needs housing for a deserving individual who needs short-term housing immediately,” Wilkes said.
The house is presently owned by the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. The Paul Robeson House of Princeton, a charity that manages the house through a memorandum of understanding.
The organization has the responsibilities of raising funds to continue the completion of the restoration and then to recognize what the vision is for the property, Leslie said.
The initial effort back in 2013, Leslie said, was to reconcile the debt on the building. There were two mortgages on the manse, in excess of $175,000, when it was repurchased by the church in 2005.
From advocacy efforts by the charity and local clergy, the Presbyterian Church Synod of the Northeast cleared the $175,000 debt in 2015 as an act of reconciliation for Rev. Will Robeson’s “ecclesiastical lynching” in 1901.
With the mortgage retired, the group turned its focus to its twin pillars of fundraising for the restoration and raising awareness of Robeson through educational programming.
That includes the Paul Robeson Week of Remembrance in Princeton, which began on April 4 with a Family Football Toss and life-size cutout of the 6’3” Robeson for photo taking in Princeton’s Palmer Square, and continued through April 9, his 123rd birthday.
On that day, a ceremonial wreath was laid in front of a bust statue of Robeson outside the Arts Council of Princeton, the building adjacent to the Paul Robeson House.
Mark Freda, mayor of Princeton, commemorated April 9 as Paul Robeson Day with a reading. A walking tour of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was then led by local historian and Paul Robeson House of Princeton board member Shirley Satterfield.
Satterfield has a tangible connection to Robeson because her grandmother taught him at the Witherspoon Street for Colored Children in Princeton.
She remembers seeing him in the neighborhood when she was a child, during one of his celebrated returns.
“Shirley can remember him when she was a child; being someone who walked around the neighborhood, as a very kind person,” Leslie said. “And that his baritone voice was well-known.”
It was that voice that carried Robeson across the sea as an actor and singer and helped him win a statewide oratorical contest in his senior year at Somerville High School, which won him a scholarship to Rutgers University.
At Rutgers, Robeson was valedictorian, the four-time champion orator of his class, the school’s first All-American football player and the star of the basketball team. He also lettered in varsity baseball and competed in track and field events.
Robeson lived in Winants Hall during his freshman year. Winants Hall was a dormitory from 1890 through the late 1940s, and is now home to the Offices of Alumni Relations, the Rutgers University Foundation, and the Office of University Counsel.
Robeson was the only black student enrolled at Rutgers his first year and the third in school history.
Family tragedy again struck at the end of Robeson’s junior year, as his father passed away on May 17, 1918. Robeson composed himself to compete three days later – and win – his third oratorical contest in “Pop’s” honor.
His subject was “Loyalty and the American Negro,” a sermon of African-American participation in past wars.
In Robeson’s senior year, he was elected to the Cap and Skull honors society, for the four students that best exemplified the ideals of Rutgers.
An editorial in “The Targum” professed the student body’s admiration of Robeson:
Now Paul, as you pass from our midst, take with you the respect and appreciation of us who remain behind. May your success in life be comparable to that of college days. In you the other members of your race may well find a noble example, and this leadership is your new duty.
May Rutgers never forget this noble son and may he always remember his Alma Mater.Excerpt from “The Targum” as appearing in “The Young Paul Robeson,” by Lloyd L. Brown
Upon graduation, he attended NYU Law School for one semester before transferring to Columbia, where he immersed himself in the black cultural mecca of 1920’s Harlem.
While Robeson graduated with a law degree from Columbia, he didn’t pursue his academics there as rigorously as he had at Rutgers.
Instead, some highlights of his law school time include debuting as an actor on Broadway and in England, playing in the first seasons of the fledgling National Football League for the Akron Pros and Milwaukee Badgers, and marrying Eslanda Goode, who would help manage his burgeoning business affairs.
In the 1920’s, Robeson starred in theater and movie roles in both American and England.
He moved to England with Eslanda and Paul Jr., born 1927, and largely maintained residence there until the outbreak of World War II.
“Paul Robeson was larger than life,” Leslie said. “If you think about renaissance men during the time that he was living, he was so well known across the globe because he traveled everywhere. And his voice was so well-known, his position on things was so well-known: that he wanted world peace, that he was against colonialism of the African continent.”
Robeson honed his political path while abroad, advocating for labor rights in the British islands and all over Europe and Russia, especially during the Spanish Civil War, and by studying anti-imperialism and Pan-Africanism.
“He was outspoken, he felt that the worker was the abused character in America and fought basically for more worker rights,” Leslie said. “He wasn’t against capitalism but he was certainly pro the very kind of things that we’re still working on now. That you shouldn’t have to work 40 hours and still be poor, that there should be something for everyone.”
After World War II, Robeson was painted with the Communist paintbrush during the Red Scare and was blacklisted for his socialist sympathies, and for his civil rights advocacy.
His passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958, denying him the right to travel to countries where he could make a living.
“Even Albert Einstein when he met him, and he was someone who escaped Nazi Germany, said how could someone as great as Paul Robeson be considered a second class citizen in America? It’s unthinkable because he’s so brilliant,” Leslie said.
Barred from staying in Princeton hotels because of racism, Robeson was a guest at Einstein’s Princeton home instead.
In 1958, Robeson’s passport was returned, and he and Eslanda quickly departed for Europe.
However, declining health and hospital stays for the both of them soon derailed their plans. They returned to the United States in 1963 and retired from public life.
Eslanda passed away from cancer in 1965. Robeson lived with his sister Marian in Philadelphia for his remaining years until he passed away at age 77, in January 1976.
“You think of the things he did – he was a world class debater, world class athlete, he was a lawyer, Columbia Law, was in Othello, he was a performing artist. You think about the role of the athlete now in terms of taking a knee, I mean, he was there,” Leslie said.
“He said as an athlete, as a performer, I have a responsibility, I can’t just be a singer. I can’t just take these roles and take a check, I have a responsibility. And he lived that, he lived that.”
Robeson’s grave is adorned with one of his most notable quotes: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
The Paul Robeson House of Princeton will continue their education programming initiatives while the house is under construction.
Some events on the docket for 2021 include:
- A Lyrics as Poetry online exhibit on April 30
- A virtual sing-along at the International Peace Arch Commemoration on May 18th
- The DuBois-Robeson Memorial Conference for Youth Activism for Global Change in August
- Fall Sports and Winter Glee recognitions of high school scholar-athletes and artists in Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties
On the July 4th weekend this year, in partnership with other Princeton organizations, a reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro” will be made in what Leslie hopes becomes an annual tradition for Princeton.
In addition to these events, the organization’s fundraising efforts are kicking into high gear. A renewed push on social media and a quarterly newsletter are also in development. The organization has established a website, YouTube channel and a Twitter page, @HouseRobeson.
“We have a lot of fundraising to do,” Leslie said. “How fast and quickly we can have the house renovated is dependent on how much money we raise. And the last estimate we received from Princeton Design Guild is that they need another $800,000 to complete the inside of the house and everything.”
Bennett Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. He has twice won the Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage award from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists, for his features on the music scene in 2022 and 2023.