Lessons From Paul Robeson's Father
Ashes. That’s what Paul Robeson remembered. It was 1901. He was just 3, living in a shack in Princeton, New Jersey. His father, William, who owned a horse and wagon, would sometimes drive Princeton University students around town. But, mostly, he worked as an ashman, hauling ashes from people’s fireplaces and dumping them in the Robeson backyard.
“Not once did I hear him complain of the poverty and misfortune of those years,” Paul would later write in his 1958 autobiography, Here I Stand (Beacon Press, 1998).
A year prior, William had marked 20 years as pastor of the town’s all-black Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. But how he lost the job, and the subsequent trials he endured, profoundly influenced Paul for the rest of his life.
“He had tremendous respect for his father and his father’s perseverance,” says Edward Ramsamy, associate professor in and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “And then there were the values Paul Robeson’s father instilled in him.”
“I know he would say, ‘Stand firm, son; stand by your beliefs, your principles.’” – Paul Robeson writing about his father
Born on April 9, 1898, to William and Maria Louisa, a teacher, Paul was the youngest of five surviving children who spent the first nine years of his life in Jim Crow-era Princeton, which he’d later describe as being “spiritually located in Dixie,” in part because many university students were from the South.
Racism was ubiquitous. Books touted black inferiority; literacy requirement laws discouraged African Americans from voting; and racial violence was rampant, especially in the South, where thousands of blacks were lynched. “Separate but equal” laws also held sway and Princeton abided. Businesses, churches, and schools were segregated.
The town’s black community, though, was tight-knit. Among its members were several of William’s relatives, who, like their fellow Witherspoon Church congregants, were great admirers of their pastor, a gifted orator who had risen far above his circumstances.
Born into slavery in North Carolina, William, at age 15, fled to the northern part of the state during the Civil War and worked as a laborer for the Union Army, which also provided schooling for runaway slaves. Later, attending Lincoln University outside Philadelphia, he earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, in divinity and theology, according to Ramsamy. “He was steeped in the classics, which he later passed along to Paul. It’s also where he met his wife (who was visiting the school).”
After marrying in 1878, the Robesons moved to Princeton, where, despite being all black, the Witherspoon church was part of a white-controlled Presbyterian network, with William serving as liaison between both communities. In 1898, when reports of racial violence in the South were making headlines, William hosted an assembly at Witherspoon to discuss nonviolent means of protest. Months later, he found himself under investigation for mishandling the church’s business records. Charges were never filed, and William’s congregants vouched for him. But his stance on social justice was too threatening for the church’s white management. In early 1901, he was forced to resign.
During his farewell sermon, Rev. Robeson avoided the controversy. “Do not be discouraged; do not think your past work is in vain.” It was a message that stuck with Paul, evident in an op-ed he penned in 1952, when his own fight for racial justice was being challenged. Of his father, he wrote, “I know he would say, ‘Stand firm, son; stand by your beliefs, your principles.’”
But William’s trials weren’t over. Three years after his resignation, when Paul was 5, a coal fell from the family stove and lit his mother’s dress on fire. Severely burned, Maria Louisa died the following day, leaving William to take care of three children at home and provide for the others at college. Paul was raised, in part, by relatives and, three years later, got to witness his father’s rise from the ashes.
In 1907, when Paul was 9, the Robesons moved to Westfield, New Jersey. By then, William had left the Presbyterian ministry to join the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an independent black denomination, which asked him to start a new church, which he literally helped build.
Today, the Witherspoon Church still stands. A block away is the parsonage in which Paul was born. Next door is the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, and across the street is the Princeton Cemetery, where his parents are buried. The arts center sits on the corner of Witherspoon Street and what was Jackson Street. It has been renamed Paul Robeson Place.
Rutgers is honoring Paul Robeson’s legacy as a scholar, athlete, actor, singer and global activist in a yearlong celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of his graduation. Check back with Rutgers Today throughout the year as we present a special series chronicling Robeson’s life and his influence on generations. Read the first article: Celebrating the Life of Paul Robeson. The next article will feature Robeson in Somerville.