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Community commemorates life of 'native son' Robeson

Exactly 100 years ago, a boy was born at 72 Witherspoon St. whose birth certificate bears only one word – "Robeson" – on the line provided for his full name.

Tuesday night, University faculty and administrators came together with supporters of the Princeton Arts Council to celebrate the centennial birthday of "Princeton's native son," entertainer Paul Robeson.


Provost Jeremiah Ostriker, the evening's first speaker, called Robeson "Princeton's most famous son," but said it was unfortunate that the multi-talented entertainer was a "casualty of the Cold War," betrayed by the country's racist and anticommunist sentiments.

A colorful history

Robeson's father was an ex-slave, who escaped from Virginia at the age of 16 and eventually became the pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.

Robeson graduated from Somerville High School and attended Rutgers University, where he was valedictorian of the Class of 1919. Robeson was also the first African-American to be named a college football All-American. He began acting when he was a law student at Columbia University, and went on to perform both on the Broadway stage and screen.

Despite his success, Robeson was exiled by the Hollywood community after he became a Communist Party sympathizer following a visit to the Soviet Union. He was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and had his passport revoked by the government in 1950. However, there is no evidence that Robeson was a member of the Communist Party, according to an April 5 article in The Times of Trenton.

An evening of celebration

The evening continued with a montage of clips from Robeson's films, singing and public speaking appearances, introduced by Sean Wilentz, director of the Program in American Studies.

One clip featured Robeson discussing his experience portraying the title character in Shakespeare's "Othello," and the author's foresight about the modern world.


"Shakespeare posed this problem of a black man in a white society," he said, explaining that the role of "Othello" was extremely unique in theatre and reflected Shakespeare's understanding of the problems of modern society.

The montage included a performance of "Ol' Man River" from the musical Showboat, a song that composer Jerome Kern wrote with Robeson in mind, according to Wilentz. Though Robeson was a star of the Broadway version of the musical, he was excluded from the film version because by the time it was produced, "Hollywood would have nothing to do with Paul Robeson," Wilentz said.

Lloyd Brown, whom Nell Painter introduced as "a longtime friend and confidant of Paul Robeson," was the man Robeson chose to be his biographer. Brown recalled meeting Albert Einstein in 1952 with whom Robeson had co-chaired the American Crusade to End Lynching when he came to Princeton to do research for Robeson's biography. When Brown told Einstein that he was honored to be meeting "such a great man," the physicist replied, "You came here with a great man."

Robeson was also a lifelong student, and "a perfectionist as a scholar," Brown said. He explained that Robeson "didn't believe in singing a song in a language unless he could speak the language."

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"He was never idle," Brown recalled. "He seemed to have a need constantly to be absorbing knowledge," and was always trying to include those who surrounded him in his educational pursuits, Brown said.

According to Brown, Robeson's behavior throughout his life can be attributed to his belief that he "had to fight for what was right, regardless of the consequences for himself."