April 6, 2022

Princeton Celebrates Robeson’s Birthday, Honoring His Legacy

By Donald Gilpin

Robeson Week of Remembrance 2022 is underway and a series of events celebrating one of Princeton’s most famous residents will culminate on Saturday, April 9, Paul Robeson’s 124th birthday, at the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) Paul Robeson Center for the Arts.

Highlights of the celebration, organized by the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, along with the ACP and the African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County (AACCMC), will include the dedication of the Robeson Pew on April 8 at Princeton High School (PHS) and the inauguration of the Robeson Scholars Recognition Program at ACP at 10 a.m. on April 9, followed by a full afternoon of performances at Hinds Plaza next to the Princeton Public Library celebrating the life and legacy of Paul Robeson through song, poetry, storytelling, spoken word, and more.

“I’m very excited about this year’s celebration,” said Paul Robeson House Board President Ben Colbert, emphasizing the impact of the new Paul Robeson Scholars Program. The Paul Robeson House of Princeton has also been leading the project to renovate the Robeson family house on Witherspoon Street across from the Princeton Cemetery.

“The celebration of Paul Robeson is important,” said Shirley Satterfield, co-founder and president of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society. “It’s important that people know who he was — a scholar, athlete, lawyer, actor, and activist. He fought against racism in the United States and against fascism all over the world.”

At noon on April 8 in the PHS guidance offices, Satterfield will be participating in the dedication of a newly refurbished church pew once used by Paul Robeson’s family, and donated from the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Students, staff, and the community are invited to join in a commemoration of the historic pew.

Satterfield, PHS school counselor emeritus, recalled the 1998 renovation of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, where Paul Robeson’s father had served as pastor. The original pews were replaced, but Satterfield, working with Cecelia Hodges, educator and performer who was awarded recognition at

the March 28 Princeton Council meeting, made sure that the historic old pews were saved.

“I went to the storage area often, just to look at the pews,” she said. “My family has been attending that church since the 1870s.” Now four of the old pews are in the Fellowship Hall at the Witherspoon church, one — a pew where her grandmother sat — is in Satterfield’s house, and one is in the PHS guidance department.   

“I put that pew in the hands of guidance secretary Olive Giles when I retired in 2006,” said Satterfield, “and she made sure it was safe until it was recently renovated.”

The April 9 birthday celebration will begin in front of the ACP at 10 a.m. with the laying of a wreath on Robeson’s bust. The Robeson Scholars Recognition will follow, acknowledging six area students, all from PHS this year, though Colbert noted plans to make sure the program grows in coming years.

“These are strong academic scholars and involved in arts or athletics or social service programming,” said Colbert. “We hope to expand the program and offer this recognition to more students in the area in future years.”

This year’s Robeson Scholars to be recognized and each awarded $500 on April 9 are seniors Joycelyn Brobbey and Mojisola Ayodele; junior Jealyn Vega-Ramos; sophomore Christopher Foreman; and freshmen Asma Qureshi and Sheena Ash.

Princeton’s historic Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood is named for the two streets that form its east and south boundaries. Jackson Street was renamed Paul Robeson Place at the time of Robeson’s death in 1976. When the ACP renovated and reopened the building in 2008, it was named the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts.

For more information on Paul Robeson Week events, visit thepaulrobesonhouseofprinceton.org.