January 18, 2023

Paul Robeson Tomato is Basis for a Multifaceted Princeton Project

By Donald Gilpin

The Paul Robeson Tomato, named after the Princeton-born African American singer, actor, and activist, is an heirloom tomato of the beefsteak variety known for its versatility and its rich, tangy, smoky flavor.   

If you’re not familiar with the Robeson Tomato, you will be soon if Joy Barnes-Johnson, Princeton Public Schools science supervisor and Paul Robeson House of Princeton board member, has anything to say about it.

Barnes-Johnson is leading The Paul Robeson House of Princeton Robeson Freedom Garden Campaign, “a wonderful way for us as a community to honor Robeson, whom we are calling Princeton’s native son,” she said. Robeson, whose birth house on Witherspoon Street is currently under renovation, would have been 125 years old in April 2023.

“The Paul Robeson House of Princeton is going to be distributing tomato seeds to students in schools

and families in our community and to anyone who requests them,” said Barnes-Johnson. “The point is to create what we are hoping will be nationwide or global, these freedom gardens in honor of Paul Robeson.”

She continued, “The point of the freedom garden is not only to provide a harvest for individuals, but to do what in Indigenous cultures is called an honorable harvest, where you take what you need but make available to anyone what they may need to eat for that day or to be free for that day.”

Barnes-Johnson launched the project at Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Princeton Middle School, and she plans other Robeson Tomato events throughout the year. Robeson Freedom Gardeners will gather in September 2023 to celebrate Robeson Tomato gardens planted during the year.

“We invite every citizen of the planet to join us in this campaign of dignity and freedom that celebrates community and collective action toward reaching the goal of making Robeson a household name,” states the Robeson Freedom Garden Campaign flyer.

“We hope to have a cultural impact, an historical reference point, and also to bring together various organizations and entities from different communities,” said Barnes-Johnson.

The Robeson Tomato originated in Siberia, Russia, and the seeds were brought to the United States by a Moscow seed seller and botanist named Marina Danilenko in 1992, though it is not known who originally developed or named this tomato. 

Robeson gained early recognition as a football player at Rutgers University, then became a famous actor and singer. He was increasingly active politically during his lifetime, supporting unions and civil rights causes and criticizing discrimination and violence against African Americans. He became a target for the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and suffered ongoing government surveillance and constraints. He died in 1977.

Barnes-Johnson pointed out that Danilenko was “celebrating the work of Robeson to embrace human dignity, and for me that’s it.”  She noted that Robeson spoke and sang in multiple languages. “He is an icon of American global thinking, a new idealism as he described it, a way of humanizing every person everywhere on the planet. He can be found singing in Yiddish, for example, and he can be heard or found in a Welsh coal mine.”

Even though Robeson wouldn’t have known about the tomato named after him, Barnes-Johnson emphasized the appropriateness of the connection. “The most human thing we do regardless of any other identity markers is to eat and to eat together,” she said. “That fellowship around food is beautiful.”

Barnes-Johnson, who is the Paul Robeson House of Princeton program chair, started imagining and began developing the Robeson Freedom Garden Campaign last year as the Robeson House board members were exchanging ideas for celebrating Robeson’s 125th birthday. 

Barnes-Johnson decided to try tomato gardening herself last summer, and the experiment was a success. “I had such a bountiful harvest that I thought, ‘I can see this turning into something,’” she said.  She went on to read about Ron Finley and his urban garden project in Los Angeles, and she read Princeton University Professor Ruha Benjamin’s book Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want.

“She referenced the various ways that urban gardening has evolved and addressed the challenges of making the world we want to see,” said Barnes-Johnson. “I knew I was in the right ballpark. It’s really something that grew out of my own thoughts, but it’s beautifully affirmed by all the projects that are happening around the world to address the issues of history and culture and gratitude.”

Barnes-Johnson pointed out that for Black History Month in February Kim Dorman at the Princeton Public Library is developing a program where participants see a TV series, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, followed by conversations about the historical and cultural values of Black garden spaces and the contributions of diverse gardening techniques.

In addition to the Princeton Public Schools and the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, the Freedom Garden Project is looking to team up with other organizations, including Send Hunger Packing Princeton, which has donated four raised garden beds on Houghton Road near Princeton High School; the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative; Bountiful Boxes, which creates raised garden beds; and other Robeson organizations throughout the country.

“All of this is in part to have Robeson become a household name,” said Barnes-Johnson. “It’s a beautiful way for us to pull together all of these individual efforts.”

“Honoring the contributions of Paul Robeson as an American hero who was willing to use his life as a model for others to follow in the work of humanizing every person, in every nation, in every category as valuable and worthy of dignity and respect is an imperative we must embrace,” states the Robeson Freedom Garden Campaign flyer.