April 3, 2024

Big Week Coming Up for Paul Robeson; Renovated House to Open in Spring ’25

“PRINCETON’S NATIVE SON”: Paul Robeson, scholar, athlete, singer, actor, and activist, will be celebrated next week with events at the Arts Council of Princeton (also known as the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts) on April 9 and April 13. The Paul Robeson House of Princeton is scheduled to complete reconstruction and open to the public by spring of 2025. (Photo by Encyclopedia Britannica)

By Donald Gilpin

If Paul Robeson’s name is not known by everyone in Princeton, that’s not for lack of effort on the part of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton and the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP), who will be hosting two 126th birthday celebrations for Robeson in the next week and planning for completion of reconstruction and reopening of the house at 110 Witherspoon Street to the public by next spring.

“We are committed to opening this facility and having it open for business by this time next year,” said Ben Colbert, president of the board of directors of the Robeson House.

Emphasizing the important role that the Robeson House has historically played in bringing together the local community, Colbert noted, “The house has been an integral part of the African American community for almost two centuries. It represents an effort of collaboration. It solved many of the problems of the time by giving the community a focus, a place where it could meet and survive; especially helpful in the period when you didn’t have access to the community commerce at all.”

The Heritage Tour plaque that will be installed at the completed Robeson House states: “The mission of the house is to serve as a beacon in the African American Community, to serve as a Cultural Center in Princeton, and to memorialize the life and achievements of Paul Robeson, ‘Princeton’s Native Son.’”

The ACP, also known as the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, has partnered with Paul Robeson House of Princeton on many Robeson-centered events.

“What I think the Arts Council represents is the importance of keeping the Robeson name in the public eye,” Colbert said. “We have a theme: make Robeson a household name.”

“The town has been very supportive,” added Colbert. “The activities of the town have helped to put us in the position to resurrect and preserve this aspect of the community’s founding.”

The celebrations next week, free and open to all ages, include a multimedia celebration at ACP in partnership with the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society (WJHCS) on the 126th anniversary of Robeson’s actual birthday on Tuesday, April 9 at 5:30 p.m.

ACP Executive Director Adam Welch will provide opening remarks, followed by personal-historical commentary by neighborhood historian and WJHCS President Shirley Satterfield; then a presentation of the Robeson Clay Project by ACP artists, Princeton High School science students, and Paul Robeson House of Princeton; and finally a flamenco dance performance by Lisa Botalico that was inspired by a Robeson speech and songs that he sang in support of resistance against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

On Saturday, April 13, the Robeson event starts at the ACP at 10:15 a.m. with an introduction and announcement of the 2024 Robeson Scholars and Fellows, recognized by the Paul Robeson House of Princeton. At 10:40 a.m. there will be the annual wreath laying at the bust of Robeson in front of the ACP, followed by a mayoral proclamation. At 11 a.m. the Paul Robeson Oratory and Arts competition will take place, followed at 2 p.m. by a tour of the Robeson House and other Princeton sites.

Joy Barnes-Johnson, a board member of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, noted that they received 35 applications this year for the Robeson Scholars program, which is designed to generate support for young people who are doing projects related to social justice. When the program started in 2021, there were nine Robeson Scholars — three scholar athletes, three scholar artists, and three scholar activists.

Last year they had three adult Robeson Fellows. “They help us from an adult perspective,” Barnes-Johnson said. “Our goal is to help them and give them a platform for social programs, but also expose them to Princeton and the Robeson legacy.”

Barnes-Johnson said that the Paul Robeson House of Princeton would be presenting between six and nine scholars’ awards. “The beautiful thing is we are hoping to hold a conference in July that will bring them to Princeton and show them what activism and social programs can look like in this community. We’re excited about that.”

Colbert pointed out that the Paul Robeson Oratory and Arts completion on April 13 is part of a long-standing tradition sponsored by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and that several students are expected to make speeches related to the subject of social justice.

Colbert went on to discuss the future of the house, the opening of which next year has been the main focus of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton board. He emphasized the importance of the fact that the house and its legacy are being preserved as “a symbol of the African American community and the contributions they have made over the years” as well as the honored birthplace and home of “one of Princeton’s most renowned citizens.”

Colbert explained that they did not want to make the house a museum, though they did want to include an archive with Robeson memorabilia and items of importance that were a part of the Witherspoon-Jackson community. “We will be very proud to share memorabilia from Paul and his family and from the Robeson era,” Colbert said. “We have access to quite a bit of materials that will reflect the life and times of the house.”

He went on to say that the house, as in the past, would be “a place for contemplation and for gathering of people from the Witherspoon-Jackson community.” Its most important function he emphasized will be “to respond to the real challenges associated with housing, especially temporary housing, as people try to settle or are planning to settle in the community.”

Paul Robeson House of Princeton anticipates having at least three independent rooms for temporary residents in need, possibly for a small family or for two students who are doing research; “people who will enhance the research on Robeson or on the changing patterns of issues that continue to challenge the African American community,” he added.

The reconstruction of the house has taken longer than Colbert hoped, but he’s eagerly looking forward to the opening of the newly reconstructed facility in time for Robeson’s next birthday celebration in April 2025.

Colbert recalled his work in the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. “I felt that if we’ve learned anything from that, it’s that we must take care of our own,” he said. “We must not let history say, ‘Well it’s gone now.’”