September 22, 2019 | 85° F

Paul Robeson's life, once scorned, is now celebrated by Rutgers for his graduation's centennial

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 Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor in the Department of American Studies, said in the 100 years since Paul Robeson graduated, opinions have shifted and there has now been a shift in perspective on his legacy. 

Paul Robeson, a Rutgers icon once scorned and dismissed, is now being celebrated for his 100th anniversary of his graduation from the University, according to an article by North Jersey Media Group. The athlete, actor, singer, scholar, movie star and political activist is now in the spotlight. 

“Opinions change over time,” said Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor in the Department of American Studies. “There has been a shift in perspective.” 

Paul Robeson Plaza, set to be at the intersection of College Avenue and Seminary Place, will have etchings on eight granite panels that will depict episodes in Robeson’s life. The opening ceremony at 3 p.m. on Friday will be attended by his granddaughter Susan Robeson, according to the article. 

The Daily Targum reported yesterday that Chancellor Christopher J. Molloy sent a University-wide email inviting the entire Rutgers community to the event. 

Paul Robeson is considered a model graduate, according to the article. During his time at the University he became a football star who had varsity letters for numerous sports, a champion orator, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Cap and Skull and delivered the commencement address as the valedictorian for the Class of 1919. 

After graduation, he went on to become a stage star, a musicologist, an essayist and an internationally-known concert singer who became a familiar voice on the radio, according to the article. Yet, this all happened in the Jim Crow era.

“In school, he sang with the Glee Club, but he couldn’t travel with the Glee Club,” said Dr. Felicia McGinty, chairwoman of the Robeson Centennial Committee at Rutgers. “He played football, but he was benched when certain teams didn’t want to play him because he was Black.” 

His teammates deliberately broke his nose and dislocated his shoulder, according to the article. After he became a Columbia University-trained lawyer, he quit the legal firm he was working at after a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. 

Starting around the 1940s and 1950s, Robeson became more politically outspoken about racism, colonialism, labor and the Ku Klux Klan, according to the article. His passport was revoked by the State Department in 1950 for saying he, as a Black man, felt welcome in Stalin’s USSR, unlike America. 

At that same time, the mayor of Boston banned any exhibition of his portrait. Other Black leaders, denounced him, Jackie Robinson and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Walter White, according to the article. 

In addition to the Plaza, Rutgers has put up two exhibitions on Paul Robeson in the Alexander Library and Zimmerli Art Museum. New Brunswick will also rename Commercial Avenue after him, according to the article. There are currently Paul Robeson buildings at Rutgers—Newark and Rutgers—Camden. 

Since his death in 1976, Paul Robeson has also been honored with a posthumous Grammy, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Paul Robeson U.S. postage stamp, according to the article. 

“Rutgers has a complicated history when it comes to grappling with the legacy of Robeson,” McGinty said. “And the truth is that any institution that is 253 years old is going to have a complicated history. As America has had.”  

Brendan Brightman

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