Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an athlete, scholar, artist and activist who was revered for his almost superhuman talents and, at times, reviled for his political positions. He used his artistic talents, speaking skills and celebrity on behalf of the defendants in the infamous Trenton Six murder case.
He was born in Princeton, New Jersey to the Rev. William Robeson a Presbyterian minister who had escaped slavery, and Maria Louisa Bustill, a Quaker schooteacher and daughter of a respected black Philadelphia family. His parents were advocates for both education and human rights. Speaking out against social injustice reportedly cost Rev. Robeson his position as pastor of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton in 1901. In 1904, his mother died from injuries sustained in a kitchen fire.
After moving to Westfield and then Somerville, New Jersey, Paul graduated from Somerville High School in 1915. He also began gaining recognition for both his musical and athletic abilities. When he graduated from Rutgers College in 1919, he did so as both an All-American and holder of a Phi Beta Kappa Key. He went on to graduate from Columbia Law School, but could not practice as he wished because of racial discrimination. He also played professional football, acted and sang on the side during his law school years.
Beginning in the early 1922, Robeson began achieving success as an actor and a performer that would take him to Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera, Hollywood and the world’s most elite concert halls and theatrical stages. He initially thought that black artists could contribute to the fight against racism through exemplary performance.
But as racism persisted, he became more radical. His insistent activism and especially, his friendship with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and positive comments about Communism as a means of advancing human rights landed him on the wrong side on the anti-Communist fervor of the post-World War II era. His passport was eventually seized, his income diminished and civil rights leaders distanced themselves from him.
The case that brought Paul Robeson to Trenton began with the January 28, 1948 murder of William Horner, 73, in his secondhand furniture shop. His common-law wife, who had also been attacked but survived, told police that that a group of young black men had beaten and robbed them. Six young black men were arrested, convicted despite their alibis, and sentenced to death. Bessie Mitchell, the older sister of defendant Collis English, undertook her own investigation of the case as well as a frantic letter-writing campaign to enlist help in appealing the convictions. Peter Salwen, whose parents were involved in the effort to free the men, picks up the tale in this 1998 remembrance:
Months before the trial, my mother and several other members of the local Communist Party had been approached by the defendants’ families and promised their help. After the sentencing, another “subversive” group, the Civil Rights Congress, entered the case and organized meetings and picket lines. Then the Progressive Party launched a petition for a state investigation. The activist-scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, singer Paul Robeson, novelist Howard Fast, folk singer Pete Seeger, and others added their voices to the protest, and as the months passed, the case gained national prominence and newspapers from New York to London, Paris, and even India and Australia picked up the story of what many called New Jersey’s “northern-style lynching.”
In the book, Jersey Justice: The Story of the Trenton Six (RIvergate Books, 2011), Cathy Knepper recounts one of the appearances that Robeson made at a Trenton Six rally:
Robeson and his allies succeeded in elevating the profile of the case and raising money for the mens’ appeal. With a top-notch group of lawyers, four of the six men were acquitted after a retrial in 1951. Tragically, Collis English died in prison of a heart attack in December, 1952. The last defendant, Ralph Cooper, accepted a plea bargain in February, 1953, after being told by prosecutors that there would be no outside help for his defense in a third trial. He was paroled that November.
Robeson’s physical and emotional health declined during the late 1950s and 60s, forcing him into retirement. He died in 1976. In death, his legacy has been viewed more sympathetically, and he has been memorialized in biographies and documentaries such as the one below. Trenton’s Paul Robeson Charter School has been named in his honor. The Trenton City Museum hosted a program series about Robeson during the summer of 2016.