On Meeting and Remembering Paul Robeson
Juliana M. Taylor
Teachers College 2006
When I was somewhere between the ages of about 10 and 12, I met Mr. Paul Robeson several years prior to his death at the home of his sister, Marian Forsythe, in West Philadelphia, PA, where he also resided. At that time, Mr. Robeson's sister was a congregational member of the Presbyterian church of which my father was pastor: Reeve Memorial United Presbyterian Church. I lived with my family just a few blocks away from the Robesons, on 50th Street. I met Mr. Robeson as a child because I was accompanying my mother to the home of his sister, who needed to take some important information to Ms. Forsythe pertaining to the women's organization that they both belonged to in our church. To this day, I have a very vivid memory of being introduced to Mr. Robeson by my mother and then walking over to him to shake his frail hand. When we met, he was an elderly man. I remember him smiling at me and quietly saying, "Hello." I also remember meeting his son, who happened to be visiting that same day. When I met Mr. Robeson as a child, I had absolutely no idea that he had made such a tremendous mark on history with his life of activism and as an actor. It wasn't until a few years after his death that I realized who he was and understood his legacy of fame. One year, some years ago, the local neighborhood library of the neighborhood I was raised in had a week-long film festival of his films. When I, as an adult, viewed one of his specific films that he had been a lead actor in, I was just astounded at the magnificence of his presence on screen as well as at the greatness of his stature and the thunderous sound of his voice when he sang. All I could think was "WOW!" The home that he lived in during the last years of his life with his sister is now a historical landmark and museum commemorating his legacy in Philadelphia. Two years ago, I revisited the home for the first time since my childhood meeting with Mr. Robeson. That was when I became aware that he was also an alumnus of Columbia. Another "WOW!" These days, I happen to be living again in the neighborhood of my childhood. Some days I walk right past the Robeson home, especially when I depart from the bus at the city bus stop right in front of that historical landmark at 50th and Walnut, en route home from my twice-weekly commute between New York City and Philadelphia for my graduate courses at Teachers College. And sometimes, when I walk past Mr. Robeson's former home, I remember that childhood meeting with him over 30-something years ago and I think to myself, "Little did we know when we met that I would one day also be attending his alma mater!"