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Exhibition Celebrates Lives of Robeson, Other Rutgers Revolutionaries

May 18, 2016
Paul Robeson yearbook photograph

Paul Robeson, 1919. Senior year yearbook photograph, credit: Special Collections and University Archives.

Concert program

Concert program inscribed by Robeson to Rutgers Library, 1935, credit: Special Collections and University Archives.

"To Rutgers Library, where I spent so many happy and useful hours.  Sincerely, Paul Robeson."

So reads the inscription on a 1935 concert program from the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey that is on display in the Special Collections and University Archives Gallery in Alexander Library.  It is part of Rutgers through the Centuries:  250 Years of Treasures from the Archives, an exhibition running through November 2016 that commemorates the university’s 250th anniversary.

More than just the namesake of the library at Rutgers–Camden, Paul Robeson (RC1919) is one of Rutgers’ most distinguished alumni.  The university’s third black student and first black football player, he was named a first team All-American and played a brief stint in the NFL despite the protests of opponents and teammates alike.  He attended Rutgers on a full scholarship, was a member of the Cap and Skull honor society, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, and earned a law degree from Columbia. As an activist he supported civil rights at home and abroad, and he gained international acclaim as a recording artist and actor for both screen and stage.

Robeson was also, in many ways, an embodiment of the Rutgers revolutionary spirit who would not let prejudice or intimidation shake his convictions.  For instance, when summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 as an alleged communist sympathizer, Robeson was defiant.  “I am not being tried for whether I am a communist,” he said during his hearing.  “I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America.”

The Robeson materials included in the exhibition are drawn from the Paul Robeson Collection in Special Collections and University Archives, which is comprised of a rich selection of mostly secondary resources from the past century. It includes newspaper clippings, published articles, books, sound recordings, correspondence, photographs and negatives, bibliographies, and more.

The diversity of the objects on display—including group photographs of Robeson with athletic teams, for which he earned a dozen varsity letters during his time at Rutgers; a 1919 photograph of Robeson along with fellow Cap and Skull honorees; Songs of Free Men, a four disc album of spirituals recorded in Robeson’s distinctive bass-baritone; and a signed playbill from a 1943 production of Othello, part of one of the longest runs of a Shakespearean play in Broadway history—speak to the life of an exceedingly talented man whose accomplishments are without parallel.

"Robie, as he was affectionately referred to by many of his classmates, was a courageous advocate for civil rights with exceptional talent and intellect," said Erika Gorder, assistant university archivist and curator of the exhibition. "He fought against racial discrimination and injustice to all people."

But he is only one of the many Rutgers revolutionaries whose lives are being celebrated by way of the exhibition.