Historic Exhibition Explores the Life of Paul Robeson

  • PRINCETON, New Jersey
  • /
  • June 23, 2016

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Bust of Paul Robeson loaned by Princeton Public Library

The Trenton Museum Society in an historic collaboration with the Paul Robeson House of Princeton and the African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County is hosting Against All Odds: Inspired by the Life of Paul Robeson, an art and history exhibit spotlighting Robesons' legacy and achievements, on display during the summer of 2016 at the Trenton City Museum, Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park, Trenton.  

The exhibits are on display from July 9 - September 11, 2016. The opening reception on July 9 from 7-9 pm is free and open to the general public.  Artists, members, and special guests are invited for a special preview hour that evening from 6-7.

In addition to the fascinating exhibits, the three organizations are hosting a series of related cultural and educational events inspired by the life and work of Paul Robeson in the areas of economic justice, racial justice and peace.

The Exhibits

The art exhibit, displayed on the first floor of the museum, includes works by local and regional artists, many of the works created expressly for the exhibit. Artists from the Trenton Community A-Team and Homefront have contributed to the exhibit, as well.

On the second floor of the museum, the history exhibit includes archival materials and artifacts loaned and donated by Archives and Special Collections at Alexander Library at Rutgers University and the Julius Lazarus Photo Collection, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, Princeton Public Library, the Paul Robeson House of Princeton; PBS American Masters - Paul Robeson Timeline.

Robeson rose above his times due to his vision of dignity for all humanity.  He was a leader in the mid-Twentieth Century whose civil rights accomplishments continue into the 21st Century.  The exhibit at Trenton City Museum provides insights into his legacy, and his accretive activism, confidence and style.  

The Man

Born in Princeton in 1898, Paul Robeson led an extraordinary life by any account.  Given that he was an African American who faced bigotry and discrimination at every turn, against all odds, he graduated near the top of his class from Rutgers College in 1919, acquired a law degree from Columbia Law School in 1923, became an internationally acclaimed singer and actor performing in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, in Showboat and as Othello in Shakespeare's play.  He became politically involved in response to the Spanish Civil War, fascism, and social injustices. He was an avid supporter of trade unions.  His advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with communism, and criticism of the United States government caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Jeaninne Holstein, Fight or Flight

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) enjoyed great success and popularity as a scholar-athlete, as an actor-musician, as a civil rights and labor activist, and as an advocate for world peace.  Born in Princeton, Paul Robeson had many New Jersey connections.   From 1915 to 1919 he attended Rutgers College, which is currently celebrating the centennial of Robeson's distinguished record as a scholar and athlete, On the Banks of the Old Raritan.   Robeson was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Cap & Skull.  His college transcript is part of the Ellarslie exhibit.  As an athlete, Robeson earned varsity letters in four sports at Rutgers, and his prowess was renowned as All-American football player.

As a concert singer, Paul Robeson performed before large crowds worldwide including concerts at Rutgers and Princeton Universities where his powerful bass-baritone voice drew crowds.  The song "Ol' Man River" (from the musical Showboat) was popularized by Robeson. 

While in Princeton, Robeson had a close personal friendship with scientist and Princeton resident Albert Einstein.

As an actor, Robeson performed as the lead in Shakespeare's play Othello on Broadway, in London and in Princeton.  His dignified interpretation of the character Othello was hailed for its power and originality.  His performance was hailed as a milestone in theater.

Robeson's popularity was diminished in the 1950s by right-wing attacks and slanders during the McCarthy period.  The State Department feared Robeson's advocacy of civil rights, labor rights, and independence for African colonies.  The FBI tracked his movements and contacts.  Declassified FBI documents are included in the Ellarslie exhibit.  The U.S. government made a concerted effort to smear Robeson and to prevent his travel abroad by seizing his passport.  

Collaborating Organizations

The Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park, Trenton is owned and maintained by the City of Trenton.  The Trenton Museum Society, a 501(c)(3) non-profit support organization, operates the museum, holding the collection and providing exhibits and programs for the benefit of residents and visitors to Trenton.  Ellarslie showcases a fine permanent collection of art and artifacts related to Trenton's historical and cultural past and present.  Rotating exhibits, educational and other cultural events are held throughout the year in collaboration with local organizations, bringing in a growing stream of visitors.

The Paul Robeson House of Princeton, located at 110 Witherspoon Street, is an important landmark for over a century in the historic African American Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood in Princeton. It was the residence of Reverend Drew Robeson and his family when he served as pastor of the 175-year old Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church from 1879 to 1901. Paul Leroy Robeson, the youngest Robeson child, was born there on April 9, 1898.  Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church reclaimed the House in 2005 and commissioned a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization devoted to the promotion of the life and legacy of Paul Robeson and his legacy of service to the poor and underserved.

The mission of the African American Cultural Collaborative 501(c)(3) status pending, is to educate, empower, and unite Africans in the Diaspora through cultural arts, health and wellness, entertainment, and sports programming.  The Executive Board's ultimate goal is to educate people from all racial backgrounds about the African Diaspora.

This collaboration presents genuine opportunities to solidify community relations and celebrate our rich history and heritage at multiple venues. 

For more information about the organizations:

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