Sitting here in the present, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day listening to the famous “I have a dream” speech being re-broadcast on John Weingart’s radio show on WPRB-FM, I realize that we in the present do little more than scratch at the surface of the past.
I suspect that even 16 minutes of radio time for King’s memorable speech is itself only scratching the surface of history. Dig deeper and I suspect you will find scores of eloquent voices waging the same rhetorical battle as King. In the mid-1970s I profiled the Rev. S. Howard Woodson of Trenton’s Shiloh Baptist Church for New Jersey Monthly. In the course of following Woodson I attended one of his services, and to this day I recall fragments of that eloquent sermon: In the face of adversity, when you wonder how and why God would have you in this position, you have to hold on, hold on, hold on to your faith, Woodson inveighed.
Reporting on that same story, I attended a church dinner to which the politically connected Woodson had invited the head of the NAACP, the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, to speak. As Hooks was introduced, members of the Shiloh congregation began putting tape recorders out on their tables. The speech would be so good, one man explained to me, that you would want to listen to it again and share it with friends. King, I suspect, was one of many voices, but one of the few that we in the white world ever heard.
Here in the present I am contemplating the new book by Jack Washington, a history teacher at Trenton High School’s west campus, who has written a history of the black community in Princeton entitled “The Long Journey Home.” The book, the author’s fourth, was the “brainchild” of Princeton history professor Nell Painter, and Washington’s research was supported by a three-year grant from the university’s African-American Studies Program.
The result is a 433-page book that Washington, in his introduction, likens to that of a time traveler taking a journey through the past that pays close attention to the previously ignored signposts put up by the black community. This book has the weight and feel of a history textbook as opposed to a breezy piece of non-fiction. So you have to scratch a little harder to get into it. Once you do you make some eye-opening discoveries.
I looked forward to the introduction of Paul Robeson, born in Princeton and still largely overlooked in his hometown. You can think of Robeson as a black Bill Bradley — an athlete (football in Robeson’s case), a scholar (law school), and political figure (a black activist who was denounced for his outreach to the Soviet Union and his involvement with the Community Party). But Robeson had one more dimension: an acclaimed performing artist. A Broadway star, he appeared in a triumphant homecoming as Othello at McCarter Theater in 1943. To keep pace Bradley would have needed to be the lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Digging into Washington’s book, however, reveals an even more intriguing man, Robeson’s father, the Rev. William Drew Robeson, who escaped from slavery at the age of 15 and was pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1898, when Paul Robeson was born. Washington quotes from the son’s autobiography: “Just as in his youth he refused to remain a slave, so in all the years of his manhood he refused to be an Uncle Tom. From him we learned, and never doubted it, that the Negro was in every way the equal of the white man. And we fiercely resolved to prove it.”
Listening today to the arguments of the black community against the expansion of the Arts Council building at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place, you will hear references to the expansion of Palmer Square and the “urban removal” of dozens of homes once occupied by black citizens. That was a long time ago, you might think, and Washington’s book confirms it — planning for that expansion began in 1929.
But Washington’s book also chronicles another costly expansion through the heart of the black neighborhood — the elimination of Jackson Street in the late 1950s and its replacement with what is now called Paul Robeson Place. No wonder longtime residents of the Witherspoon area remain concerned about the future of their housing stock.
Over the 200 years covered by Washington’s book, Princeton University appears as both a friend and foe of the black community. The low point may have been the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. For all his idealistic hopes for world peace, the man showed little tolerance for his black neighbors. But apparently they could be helpful on occasion. At Wilson’s inauguration as Princeton president in 1902, visiting dignitaries were hosted at the homes of Princeton faculty. Except Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute — he was put up at a black boardinghouse in town.
Jack Washington will appear at a reading and booksigning on Friday, January 28, at 8 p.m. at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. If you want to scratch the surface of this history a little deeper, you can take a short journey to the church and start there, not far from home.