Community partner spotlight: Paul Robeson House

To extend our community outreach, the library partners with the many municipal, non-profit, and business organizations that make Princeton such an extraordinary town. This month, we spoke with Ben Colbert, director of the Paul Robeson House, and board members, Denyse Leslie, Martha Sword and Joy Barnes-Johnson.

How long has Paul Robeson House been in Princeton?
The house at 110 Witherspoon St. has been at the center of African American life in Princeton for nearly two centuries. Built in the early 1800s, the house was the residence of the Robeson family when William Drew Robeson served as pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Rev. Robeson and his wife Marie Bustill Robeson had five children. Their youngest son, Paul, was born in the house on April 9, 1898. In 2013, with the creation of our 501 c 3, plans to preserve the history of Paul Robeson and the historic building took shape.

What is your primary area of focus?
We have as our mission, to promote social justice consistent with the values and actions of Princeton’s native son, Paul Robeson. We expect Robeson’s birthplace to be a lasting tribute to his achievements and staunch commitment to social and racial justice. We expect that generations to come will have an appreciation for the rich African American culture in Princeton and globally. In 2021, we will execute our 2021-23 Strategic Plan priorities to advance educational programming and complete the renovation of the building. We are engaged with the community in conversations about race, voting and citizenship, immigration, and affordable housing. As the pandemic winds down, we will creatively build on our relationships to achieve mission and development goals.

Why do you like partnering with the library?
The Princeton Public Library opens its doors to Mercer county and beyond to shed light and furnish historical and cultural knowledge of our unique history and convenes communities of like interests. The Paul Robeson House of Princeton participates in that same space with a focus on the Robeson legacy, the African American and diaspora’s experience and on social justice. We treasure the collaborations we have enjoyed over the years with PPL. For the “Against All Odds Inspired by the Life of Paul Robeson Exhibition” at The Trenton City Museum at Ellerslie in 2016-17, we leaned heavily on the Library’s collection of era newspapers, photographs, and other primary source material. The Library loaned us a rare bust of Robeson that was a centerpiece and highlight of the show. Most recently, PPL staff members consulted with us and provided much-needed technical support for our virtual Conversation on the American Economy between Paul Krugman and Eduardo Porter – noted NYT columnists and economic reporters.

With whom do you work most in the community?
The Arts Council of Princeton is an important partner for shared cultural events. We also work closely with the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic Society and the Neighborhood Association. We partner with Princeton Community Housing as we address concerns with affordable housing and economic issues. Several faith-based organizations that share our social justice mission and vision are important partners including Witherspoon Church, Nassau Church, and the Jewish Center.

What is something that you do that people might not know about?
Through the years the house at 110 Witherspoon St. has served as a gathering place and commerce center for the largely African American Witherspoon-Jackson Historic Neighborhood. Many of these residents have become the driving force for social change, educational and civic advancement that we experience today. We have assisted people in need of emergency shelter. For example, for about one year, we housed a man who was unjustly incarcerated for over 35 years. For several years, the Robeson House was a home for an immigrant family seeking asylum from war-torn Eritrea. Renovations at the house uncovered historical artifacts that give insight into the past such as the transit pass Paul’s brother William used to travel to Trenton High School because Princeton High School was segregated for whites only.

Is there any project or event that you are particularly excited about now?
We are excited to launch the 2021 Robeson Week of Remembrance with events to be held from Sunday, April 4 to his birthday on Friday, April 9 celebrating the life and legacy of Mr. Robeson, the Robeson family and the ideas of intergenerational unity and community interaction.

  • Sunday-Family Football Toss Palmer Square
  • Tuesday-Y/YA Readings (Grandpa Stops a War and Ballad of an American)
  • Wednesday-Poetry/Chorus/History program [Paul Robeson House of Princeton Board Family Night]
  • Friday-Placing a Memorial Wreath at the Princeton Arts Council to commemorate Paul Robeson’s birthday. A walking tour of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical Neighborhood led by Princeton historian Shirley Satterfield will follow.
  • and more

We will host an event commemorating Paul Robeson’s International Peace Arch Speech on the border-crossing between the United States and Canada on May 18, 1952 “I Came Here to Sing.” The social media and community sing-a-thon will invite performers from all around town to capture and share their voices using the hashtags #RobesonHousePrinceton #ICameHereToSing. A small gathering of vocalists and performers will be invited to enjoy the songs, words, and legacy of Robeson in honor of peace over politics in a public space.

1890 Bus Pass (photo taken by Ben Colbert)

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