Last week we celebrated the life of Paul Robeson (1898-1976) whose birthdate is April 9. But much of his brilliance was passed down to him through his remarkable father, William Drew Robeson, born July 27, 1844.
Born into slavery, William’s father was Benjamin Robeson (1820-c 1889) and his mother was Sabra (1825-c 1885). They were enslaved on the Roberson plantation near Cross Roads Township in Martin County, North Carolina. A descendant of the Igbo people, William, 15, with his brother Ezekiel, escaped bondage via the Underground Railroad and they made their way to Philadelphia.
At the age of 16 he served as a laborer for the Union during the Civil War. After his military service he attended Lincoln College (now a university), earning a bachelor’s degree in 1873 and after three years a degree of sacred theology. It was at the school that he met Maria Louisa Bustill and they married in 1878. They had seven children: Gertrude, who died young; William Drew Jr., who was called Bill; John Bunyan Reeve, who was called Reed; Benjamin; Marian; and Paul, the youngest child. There was another child who died at birth.
William’s wife, Louisa, died in 1904 in Princeton, New Jersey when her clothes caught fire from a coal-burning stove in the kitchen. She had long been hampered by poor eyesight and ill health, and when a hot coal fell on her dress she was slow to detect it. She was fatally burned but lingered on several days before her death. It took William a long time to recover from the loss of his beloved mate.
Before moving to Princeton, he served as pastor at the Church of the Covenant from 1878 to 1880. From 1880 to 1901, William was the minister of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, a church that had been specifically constructed for the Black membership of First Presbyterian Church of the city and is known as Nassau Presbyterian Church. After 20 years of service William was ousted having become affiliated with a more vocal and activist element of his congregation, voicing his opposition to social and political injustice.
He offered only hope and optimism upon leaving the church and moved on without disgust to Westfield, New Jersey to pastor the Downer Street Saint Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, holding that position from 1907 to 1910. Under his spiritual and social leadership a new church was constructed and completed in 1908. Two years later, the Robeson family moved Somerville, New Jersey where William was the pastor at Saint Thomas African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. It was here that his “rock-like strength and dignity,” as Paul described him as well as his passionate love for oratory flowered. According to Martin Duberman in his exhaustive and monumental testament to Paul’s life and legacy, the son had a deep regard for his father. Paul often spoke of his father’s splendid voice, “the greatest speaking voice I ever heard, a deep sonorous basso, richly melodic and refined, vibrant with the love and compassion which filled him.”
William taught his children about respect for their fellow beings and never to cower in the face of racism and injustice. There was to be no expression of servility and to always remember that they were equal “to the white man.” As Duberman wrote, “As a parent, Reverend Robeson was loving but demanding, a strict disciplinarian whose perfectionist standards his son eventually internalized.”
That stern guidance for his children often manifested itself through his attendance to their studies and school activities. No one was more devoted to Paul’s success as his father, who attended every game and was at those events providing moral support no matter the occasion.
In May of 1918, William was suddenly stricken just as Paul was preparing to compete in an oratorical contest. His father insisted that he honor that commitment, which Paul did to great success. On May 17, he died and Paul kept among his memories this obituary from a local newspaper: “The death of Rev. W.D. Robeson takes from the community one who has done quiet but successful work among his own people for the last eight years. Rev. Robeson was a man of strong character. He was very familiar with the characteristics of his race and was always interested in their welfare. He quickly resented any attempt to belittle them or to interfere with their rights. He had the temperament that produced so many orators of the South, and he held his people together in the church with a fine discernment of their needs. He has left his impression on the colored race throughout the State, and he will be greatly missed.” This quote appears in Paul Robeson, Jr’s book The Undiscovered Paul Robeson —An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939.
As you can see, neither the father nor the grandson fell too far from the patriarch’s tree.