Remembering Paul Robeson’s life and legacy

Before Paul Robeson starred on silver screens and stages, before he agitated and advocated for African Americans, workers and independence, before the government stripped him of his passport and labeled him a communist and grilled him before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the “Red Scare” and before he said he felt more like a full human being in Moscow than in Mississippi or Montgomery, Robeson, the Princeton native and son of a runaway slave, graduated from Rutgers University in 1919.

“One hundred years ago the world was very different and Rutgers was a very different place. He was only the third African American student to graduate from Rutgers in history and his time here was challenging,” said Felicia McGinty, executive vice chancellor for Administration and Planning at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Discrimination initially barred Robeson from living on campus. He endured other indignities but the school says Robeson’s legacy of achievement may be unrivaled at Rutgers. He earned 15 varsity letters for excellence in four sports. He was a scholar: a member of the honors society, Cap and Skull and valedictorian of his class.

“Paul Robeson kicked the door open and held it open for all to come behind him,” McGinty said.

Rutgers is using art to begin re-telling Robeson’s story in a year-long centennial celebration of his graduation. The university sent out 17 requests to artists. Nine of them responded. The result: a half-dozen artistic pieces showing Robeson in different roles in his life.

“We’re delighted to have these depictions of the different phases of his life that demonstrated how multi-faceted and talented he was,” McGinty said.

One is of Robeson, the athlete, who shattered the football team’s color barrier. Another is a watercolor depiction of Robeson, the scholar, who would go on to play professional football while earning a law degree at Columbia University.

“I wanted to try to capture something of his essence, his determination and his dignity and the gravitas that he had,” said Valerie Suter, a Rutgers University Masters of Fine Arts student who painted the watercolor portrait of Robeson.

Others capture Robeson performing, singing and acting that exposed him to world capitals that would accept him beyond his roles as Othello and others — and offered him a stage for social and political activism that eventually would lead to ending a remarkable career.

“I would venture to say were he alive today he would truly say ‘black lives matter,'” McGinty said.

“When I get a question, ‘who would you talk to dead or alive?’ The person I always jump to is Paul Robeson,” said Marc Younker, a member of the National Black Law Students Association at Rutgers University. “Because he has accomplished so much.”

The Zimmerli Art Museum’s director, Tom Sokolowski hopes the exhibit inspires.

“What Paul Robeson did should be a kind of acme as the Greeks would have said. This glorious mold that every student, particularly young people, every person, but every student should aspire to,” said Sokolowski. “That it’s not, just I think the university’s idea behind the Paul Robeson Legacy Project is not to just look at the dates and times and facts of his life. But what he did and what it means not only for African Americans and people of color but also for all students to achieve.”

The Zimmerli will display the legacy project through mid-April. From there, the director hopes it travels, to other Rutgers campuses.

The centennial celebration will include lectures and programs to provoke thought and talk about Rutgers most famous alum, who for some, seems forgotten.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that the exhibit would travel to other Rutgers University campuses. A travel schedule has not yet been finalized. 

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