Class of 1971 proposes Paul Robeson Memorial Plaza for 45th Milestone Campaign
The Paul Robeson Plaza is being developed by the Rutgers Class of 1971 45th Milestone Committee, said Chair Jim Savage. Along with several other members of his graduating year, he is planning the plaza as a tribute to the former Rutgers student.
“I started the conversation the same way with each person, I asked, ‘Who do you feel is the most accomplished, most distinguished Rutgers alumnus of all time,’ and they all said what I thought they would say, they all said ‘Paul Robeson,’” Savage said.
The committee originally planned to have a small memorial commemorating Robeson’s life and achievements, but upon approaching the University were told that a plaza might be more appropriate.
Savage said the committee had a few goals in mind when they conceived the plaza, with the most important being that the memorial be located on the College Avenue campus.
“We wanted it to be on the College Avenue campus because Paul Robeson went to school at Rutgers when it only was the College Avenue campus,” he said. “We wanted a monument where he went to school.”
The proposed plaza will consist of six etchings from different points in Robeson’s life, along with several benches and a portion of the alumnus’ valedictorian speech, Savage said. There will also be a pillar with a quote between the benches.
It will be located near Voorhees Mall behind the Ford Building. Savage said he hopes to finish the plaza in late 2018, with a dedication in May 2019.
Robeson graduated as part of the Class of 1919, and was only the third African-American to do so from Rutgers. He was also the first black All-American football player, an accomplished singer, lawyer, author and civil rights activist recognized for his work in several different countries, including Jamaica and South Africa.
“Rutgers used to have that slogan, ‘Jersey roots, global reach.’ That wasn’t about Paul Robeson but we felt it described him to a T,” Savage said. “I mean he was born in New Jersey, raised in New Jersey, but he had a global reach.”
Robeson furthered the cause of apartheid in South Africa and requested a federal law outlawing the lynching of African-Americans, he said. He was also victimized by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his comments on the Soviet Union.
“The more research we did, the more inspired we were by (his) accomplishments,” he said. “With all he did in his life, (he) demonstrated what one person can do to make a difference.
Despite the hardships he faced, Robeson had "tremendous character" in his interactions with others, said Paul Von der Heyden, another Class of 1971 graduate. He was approached by a government official who offered to return his passport after it was taken by the House committee and refused.
The reason why was because he would only receive it if he agreed to retract his earlier statements praising the Soviet Union, Von der Heyden said.
Instead, he lost his passport for eight years, which had an extremely damaging effect on his career, Savage said.
"He was a black man, who was also an agitator, and that's a double-whammy that (the government) would not let stand, and they destroyed his career," Von der Heyden said.
With his accomplishments, the committee will use “stand with Robey” as a rallying cry for the planning of the facility, Savage said. The goal is for the plaza to become a natural stop during campus tours by potential students, and even for current ones to learn more about his life.
“He was a voice for the oppressed, for the people without voices,” Savage said. “He was an advocate for working people, for labor, helping people achieve better job conditions, he fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, he strove for the end of segregation, civil rights.”
While the fundraising is being performed primarily by the Class of 1971, students and community members who are interested in the project can receive updates by calling (732) 932-8102.
Nikhilesh De is a School of Engineering junior. He is the news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @nikhileshde for more.