Robeson In Depth
Paul Robeson In Depth by Amanda V. Casabianca
|Paul Robeson's father, William Drew Robeson,
was born into slavery on the Robeson plantation in Cross Road Township,
Martin County, North Carolina. In 1860, at fifteen years of
age, William Drew made his escape, found his way north across the
Maryland border through Pennsylvania, and served in the Union Army as a
laborer (making at least two very dangerous journeys back to North
Carolina to see his mother Sabra). With the close of the
Civil War, William Drew
Robeson managed to acquire a full education and obtained a degree in
Sacred Theology from Lincoln University in Philadelphia,
1876. While studying there, he met Maria Louisa Bustill, a
teacher from a family with an impressive legacy of
productivity. In 1878, her father Cyrus helped to found The
Free Africa Society, the first black self-help organization in
America. Her family consisted of abolitionists, journalists,
doctors and activists. And while their achievements would
become a part of Paul Robeson's heritage, he would almost always
identify with the more modest lives of his father's side of the
Born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, Paul Leroy Robeson was the youngest of five children. His oldest brother, William Drew Jr., became a doctor in Washington D.C. and died at the age of forty-four. Paul Robeson would always speak of him as the genius of the family and his own "principal source of learning how to study." Marian, his only sister, followed in her mother's footsteps and became a teacher. Brother Benjamin, like his father, would become a minister. But it was the quick tempered and fiery Reeve who would reject the family tradition; he was the Robeson family rebel, reacting to racism with angry defiance. Paul Robeson would later state, "His example explains much of my militancy... He often told me 'Don't ever take it from them, Laddie - always be a man - never bend the knee.' " The adult Paul Robeson would reflect on his "restless, rebellious" brother, "defiant of the white man's law." Reeve was eventually packed off to Detroit, after one-too-many street fights. He is rumored to have gone into the hotel business and possibly died on skid row.
At this point in history, Princeton was strictly a Jim Crow city, with black citizens held to menial jobs and black children relegated to a segregated school system that ended at the 8th grade. Later in his life, Paul would scornfully recall Princeton as "spiritually located in Dixie." Despite the racist climate, the Robeson family were part of a large unified black community, with many of their extended family residing near by. Paul would later recall that blacks lived a much more "communal life" in Princeton "than the white people around them," which was "expressed and preserved" in the black churches. The Reverend William Drew Robeson has been spoken of as a man who enriched the economy of his parish and stood firm in defending the rights of black people even when it could possibly cause him personal economic harm.
Sadly, this was to transpire in the ousting of Reverend Robeson from the Princeton Pastorate after over twenty-years of service. With no clear reasons given, Reverend Robeson's own congregation called for his dismissal at Witherspoon Church. Later testimony would reveal that he had aligned himself "on the wrong side of a church fight," having apparently refused to bow to pressure from the "white residents of Princeton" that he cease his tendency to "speak out against social injustice." Upon his dismissal, Reverend William Drew Robeson bypassed any need "to recriminate and rebuke." "As I review the past," he said, "and think upon many scenes, my heart is filled with love." In closing his last address to his Princeton congregation, he implored them, "Do not be discouraged, do not think your past work is in vain."
Forty years on, after his own son Paul had himself become the recipient of public scorn, longtime Robeson family friend, Grace Doman Willis, would remark on how Paul's "ideas, thought and efforts were misinterpreted by the white man to keep his black brother in the dark and keep us from making progress," adding, "They did it to his father."
Within a few years of being dismissed from his pastorate, Reverend Robeson lost his wife Louisa in a tragic kitchen accident. Louisa, in ill health and nearly blind, was set alight when a coal from the stove fell on her long dress and she failed to notice. Mortally burned, she died several days later. Paul, as an adult, would say he had virtually no memory of his mother. Oddly, he would tell only his closest friends vivid details of her funeral, saying, "I admired my father but I loved my mother." Her side of the family which reflected a mix of African, European and Delaware Indian, showed disinterest in Louisa's now motherless "dark children." This is possibly another reason Paul Robeson identified strongly with his father's uneducated relations, who never shunned him.
Reverend Robeson now found himself a jobless widower with two children to care for (Ben and Paul; the other three children were living out of state). Economic hardship became a way of life as Reverend Robeson relocated his family to nearby Westfield, where he worked in a grocery store. The Reverend and his sons cooked and washed in a back alley lean-to and slept in an attic under the store roof. Reverend Robeson eventually managed to erect a tiny church. Shifting from Presbyterian to African Methodist Episcopal, he was able to bring together a flock of rural blacks newly arrived from the south. In turn, they helped his family stay together. "There must have been moments," Paul Robeson would later write, "when I felt the sorrows of a motherless child, but what I most remember from my youngest days was an abiding sense of comfort and security." This cohesive extended family would be the foundation from which Paul Robeson's tremendous sense of self worth would be built.
By 1910, Paul's family relocated to Somerville, New Jersey, where Reverend Robeson was able to re-establish himself at the parish of St. Thomas A.M.E. Zion. It was there in Somerville, following his usual allotment of homework, that Paul was given speech after speech to memorize for his father's approval. It was the Reverend's belief that black education should never be limited to manual skills (as Booker T. Washington advocated.) He firmly believed that the heights of knowledge should be explored in every way possible. For the high school age Paul, this entailed reading the Greek classics, page by page, to his father, four years of Latin, debate as well as sports and music. As a father, William Drew Robeson was caring, loving and fair. He was also a strict disciplinarian whose perfectionism would also go into shaping Paul Robeson's future. Paul was expected to turn in excellent marks in school, work an odd job to pay for school fees, as well as taking an active role in church life. One of his many jobs included being a waiter at an all-white hotel in Rhode Island during the summer. With no outlet for social fun in town, the all-black staff became fast friends. One of Paul's fellow workers was Oscar C. Brown, who would go on to become an Illinois real estate developer and civil rights advocate. The staff also included Fritz Pollard, who became the first Black All-American football player of the 20th century. Oscar Brown recalls, "everyone loved Paul... He didn't know how to wait tables but he knew everything else."
Somerville, New Jersey proved to be a positive environment for the young Paul Robeson. He was well liked and admired within the halls of his unsegregated high school. However, a distinct line was drawn. For every superior performance in school (and there were many) he had to pretend that is was an average, almost absent-minded accomplishment. For young Paul, this required tremendous self control. "Above all," he would later write, "do nothing to give them cause to fear you, for then the oppressing hand, which might at times ease up a little, will surely become a fist to knock you down again."
Toward the end of his senior year in high school, Paul entered a state-wide debate contest. He chose to compete with a delivery of Wendell Phillips' famed monolog on Toussaint L'Ouverture, the revolutionary Haitian leader who defeated Napoleon's troops in a successful slave rebellion. Robeson would recall, some forty-odd years later, that he "had no real appreciation" of the words he so passionately spoke. Still, those in attendance would later recall a young orator so skilled that even his own usually stoic father "broke out at times in emotional expression." As in the majority of the oratory and debate contests where he competed against whites, he was awarded only third prize.
That same year of 1915, Robeson competed for and won a scholarship to the New Jersey College, Rutgers. He left Somerville with a stable childhood behind him. While he had been taunted with the word "nigger," he was never consistently treated as such. He had been taught by his father to represent his race with dignity but also to care "for all peoples who were unfavorably treated." His father would often remind him "that whites as well as blacks had given him aid and comfort in his trek for freedom." As if by example, the Reverend would count among his Somerville friends the Woldins, a white family who had fled Russia's czarist persecution of the Jews. That adult Paul would counsel others with the same refrain: neither suffering nor compassion is confined to a single race. "I came up an idealist," he once said, "interested in human values, certain that all races, all peoples are not nearly as different one from the other as text books would have it."
And so, Paul carried with him into university a complex strategy for survival. While he knew that all whites were not evil, he also knew the extent of white aggression and cruelty (his father was, after all, a former slave) and had been constantly reminded that his job was to prosper and stay alive. This philosophy would be ingrained for life - and during that life, events of great magnitude would both test and shed doubt on its realism.
When a 17 year old Paul Robeson arrived at Rutgers College, he was only the third African American on record to gain admission. The year after Robeson enrolled, a second black student, Robert Davenport, was admitted, and "Robey" and "Davey" became fast friends. They would need each other. Despite the fact the Rutgers was still a small private college (bearing little resemblance to the colossus of academia that it is today,) racism on campus was clearly evident. Fortunately, Paul Robeson's talent and magnetism, combined with his strong sense of self, helped him to transcend much of the personal pain he would experience there. Life would also continue to demonstrate to him that his knowledge could win the respect and applause of white people, though never their intimate friendship.
Rutgers had never in its history had a black football player on its top-ranked college team. When Paul Robeson bravely walked onto the practice field to try out, his reputation as a brilliant athlete had preceded him. Rutgers football coach, Foster Sanford, had seen him play at Somerville and had been very impressed. With the average Rutgers team member standing five feet, nine (or shorter), Paul, at six feet, two inches and 190 pounds, weighed twenty pounds more and stood some three to four inches taller than most others on the field. The "giant" was instantly set upon when he went out for his first day of scrimmage. The players piled on and Paul Robeson was left with a sprained shoulder, broken nose and an assortment of cuts and bruises. Robeson would recall, "a very, very sorry boy" had to stay in bed for ten days to mend his wounds. "It was tough going" and "I didn't think I could take it anymore." But, William Drew Robeson had raised Paul to never forget that "when I was out on the football field or in the classroom or anywhere else, I was not there just on my own. I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football, and wanted to go to college, and as their representative, I had to show I could take whatever was handed out...our father wouldn't like to think that our family has a quitter in it".
Following a pep talk from his brother, Ben, Paul Robeson returned to the football field for another scrimmage. This time, a varsity player stomped maliciously on his hand, tearing off his fingernails. On the next play, an enraged Robeson swept out his massive arms and brought three men crashing to the ground. Then he grabbed the ball carrier and lifted him up - "I was going to smash so hard to the ground that I'd break him in two"- but was stopped by Coach Sanford, who then made it clear that " Robey " had become a member of the team and any of his fellow players who attempted to hurt him would be dropped.
Paul Robeson's continuing life at Rutgers and first love - Summer 2001
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