Nearly 15 years ago I spent a few days in Memphis, Tennessee, taking in the town’s major tourist attractions, each of which turned out to be memorable in surprising ways. Graceland was not only a shrine to Elvis but also a testament to the marketing genius of his widow, Priscilla. Mud Island — a scale model re-creation of the Mississippi River — was a geography lesson unlike any other I have had. The Sun Studio tour was a revelation: how still pictures, sound, and an informed, theatrical presenter could bring an entire musical era to life in a space no bigger than the average Princeton living room.
Then there was the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum, housed in the very motel where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I remember a replica of a segregated lunch counter and an audio visual exhibit capturing the exchange between President John F. Kennedy and the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, as he attempted to thwart the integration of the state’s university. Kennedy’s voice had a steel edge as he told the governor the school would be integrated and that federal troops would be used to enforce that decision.
I am reminded of the Sun Studio tour and the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum often as I contemplate efforts to leverage some of Princeton’s historical assets into study centers that would attract ordinary tourists and serious scholars.
So when I heard that the birthplace of Paul Robeson was being opened to the public for a few hours last Sunday, the day after the 113th anniversary of Robeson’s birth on April 9, 1898, I charged over to visit the house at 110 Witherspoon Street, just across Green Street from the Arts Council’s Paul Robeson Center.
The occasion was organized by the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, located just a few doors away and where Robeson’s father had been minister when the future scholar-All American athlete-singer-actor-human rights activist was born. Sometime after the Robeson family left the house, it fell into private ownership and was broken down into various residential configurations.
Recognizing the historical significance of the property, the church quietly repurchased the house in 2005 and set in motion a nonprofit organization that would oversee the building’s renovation and conversion into a community meeting place, an interpretive gallery illuminating the achievements of Robeson, and a residential wing that could provide interim housing for visiting ministers, scholars, or families in need.
The house, clearly never a place where a silver spoon was likely to end up in the mouth of the newborn Robeson, now needs work. I caught up with Benjamin Colbert, a retired ETS/College Board official who is an elder of the Witherspoon Street Church and on the board of directors of the Paul Robeson House. Colbert says that the board is expecting renovations and structural improvements to cost more than $500,000 and have set a fundraising goal of $1 million to also enable some of the programming initiatives.
The oldest of 11 children raised in Savannah, Georgia, Colbert (you pronounce the “t”) has faced daunting tasks before. Born in 1942, he was a teenager when the civil rights movement erupted in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. He was active in the voter registration drives and eagerly voted for Kennedy when he got the chance. That reminded me of the King Museum and I asked him if he had ever been there. No, he said, but he could easily imagine the lunch counter display — he had helped integrate them.
The protests in Savannah, he said, had been nonviolent, but there was still tension in the air. While he was sitting at the white section of a lunch counter, he had a glass of cold ice tea poured onto his lap by an angry woman.
“I’m proud I was involved in it,” Colbert said of the civil rights movement. “The very thought that you could be told you couldn’t sit in a particular place” was galling. “My parents’ generation hoped it would end. Ours is the generation that saw it end.”
After the studying at Savannah State College, Colbert joined the admission office at the University of Georgia, by then under orders to integrate its student body. “Here it was in the late 1960s and the university had about 50 black students out of an enrollment of 18,000.”
The admissions job there led to the College Board and ETS and his relocation to Princeton. He and his wife, Deborah Raikes-Colbert, the director of human resources at Drew University, have two sons. When the boys were younger Colbert sought out a church that would help expose them to the spiritual side of life. He recalled fondly the Presbyterian church that was a cornerstone of his community in Savannah and found similarities with the Witherspoon congregation.
The Paul Robeson House mission includes a “role as a residential ‘safe house,’ especially sensitive to the needs of low-income African-American youngsters and immigrants.” I hope that my idea of utilizing part of the space as essentially a tourist attraction celebrating the life and times and struggles of Paul Robeson will not be viewed as a distraction.
I ask Colbert when he first heard of Paul Robeson. Given that Robeson had been blacklisted in the 1950s while Colbert and his generation were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, Robeson was not even on the radar then (and lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1976). Only later did Colbert discover the depth of Robeson’s story. The next generations may not have to wait so long to meet one of Princeton’s most amazing native sons.