By Frederick H. Lowe
Rutgers University has dedicated a pedestrian plaza to honor Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson, the school’s most- acclaimed alumnus on the 100th anniversary of his university graduation in 1919. He was class valedictorian, and he later was called a “Renaissance Man for the Ages.”
The open-air plaza, which features eight black granite panels depicting Robeson’s life as a scholar, athlete, actor, and global activist for civil rights and social justice, was unveiled Friday on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus.
“There’s no question you’ve heard that Robeson is among the greatest of hundreds of thousands of Rutgers alumni—simply one of the greatest,” said Rutgers President Robert Barchi. “We may never see again so many talents combined in one person—-a superior scholar, an all-American athlete, a world-renown singer, an actor, a spellbinding orator, and a passionate activist and humanitarian.” Robeson starred in 10 films, including the 1939/1940 movie “The Proud Valley” in which he was a Welsh coal miner.
One of his fellow miners complained Robeson was black, unlike the other miners who are white. A fellow white miner told the miner who objected to Robeson’s working there that all of the miners were black when they are digging for coal in the mines.
He also starred in “Show Boat” ( 1936), “The Emperor Jones” (1932) and “Big Fella” (1937). He also starred in “Othello,” the longest-running play on Broadway.
Robeson earned disdain during the Cold War for speaking out for human and civil rights.
The plaza was championed and envisioned by the class of 1971 for its 45th anniversary with strong support from the Rutgers African American Alliance.
“President Barchi, this is our milestone gift and it is the hope to the Class of 1971 that Paul Robeson Plaza will stand as a public and lasting tribute to the extraordinary life and legacy of Paul Robeson and will serve to inspire future generation to stand up and speak out [on] social injustice and human rights with Paul Robeson as their model and their mentor,” said Claude White, president of the Rutgers College Class of 1971.
Not everyone liked Robeson, including the FBI and the Chicago Sun-Times. Under a previous editor, the Sun-Times called Robeson a Communist, and Chicago’s liberal newspaper refused to acknowledge him. The editor pulled that lie out of thin air because there never was any evidence Robeson was a Communist.
Robeson wasn’t a Communist, according to Martin Duberman, who wrote “Paul Robeson: A Biography,” which is 804 pages in length. Duberman is a Distinguished Professor of History at Lehman College, The City University of New York.
Robeson was a close friend of Marshall Field III, founder, and publisher of the Chicago Sun, which was later renamed the Chicago Sun-Times. Field defended Robeson’s right to speak out against racism.
Robeson once told a Chicago Sun reporter,” The Communist Party is a legal one like the Republicans or Democrats and I could belong to either. That’s as far as you’ll get in any definition from me.”
Although the Sun-Times didn’t like him, the Chicago Public Schools opened a school to honor him.
Robeson High School, which opened on September 6, 1977, in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, is named in his honor.
Robeson also gave a speech in the Lake Forest, Illinois, home of Frederick V. Field, who took a leadership role in publicizing the brutal 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago in Money, Mississippi.
Robeson was born April 9, 1898, and raised in Princeton, N.J. His father, a minister, single-handedly raised Robeson and his four siblings after their mother was killed in a house fire.
He was the third African American admitted Rutgers. In his junior year, he was one of four classmates admitted to Phi Beta Kappa. He later attended Columbia University Law School. If that wasn’t enough, he earned a law degree while playing football. Robeson lettered in four sports.
Susan Robeson, Robeson’s granddaughter, said “what was so extraordinary about my grandfather was that the more successful, the more wealthy, the more famous, the more accomplished he became as a singer and an actor, the less he focused on himself and the more attuned he became to the suffering of others.”