Paul Robeson and William Still are two of among the hundreds of notable figures in New Jersey’s African-American history. Learn more about them below and be sure to view Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History from the NJ State Library.
Paul Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. At school, Robeson did well in academics, music, singing, and sports. In 1915 Robeson won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers College. He was only the third African-American to attend the school.
Robeson worked hard and succeeded at everything he tried at Rutgers. He was a star athlete in football, basketball, baseball, and track. In speaking competitions, he won first place. He also did well in all his classes and graduated as class valedictorian.
After graduating from college, Robeson went to law school while playing professional football. While in law school he fell in love with Eslanda “Essie” Goode, and they married in 1921. After receiving his law degree, Robeson joined a law firm, but quit after a white secretary refused to work with him.
Robeson loved singing and acting, so he decided to become a performer. The first play he starred in was “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” People protested the play and made bomb threats because a white actress played the role of his wife. But the people didn’t scare Robeson, and he continued to act.
Audiences loved Robeson’s performances, and he became a role model for other African-Americans. Success allowed him to inform people about African-American history and culture. He turned down roles that stereotyped African-Americans. In 1925, Robeson decided to perform at a concert, singing black spirituals. The show was an instant success and led to albums and a tour.
Robeson performed in many different plays in England and in the United States. His most famous role was in the musical “Showboat.” He performed the show in England, on Broadway in New York City, and in a movie version. “Ol’ Man River,” a song from the musical, became his signature song. He is also famous for his role in the William Shakespeare play “Othello.” He was the first black actor to play Othello in almost 50 years. Even though the character is African-American, white actors had traditionally played the part with black face make up. Robeson liked the part because it was a good role for an African-American actor.
Although Robeson was very talented and famous, his popularity did not last. He always spoke out against discrimination, and, in the 1940s, his ideas for fixing this social problem and other problems were unpopular. Because it was more important to Robeson to stand up for his beliefs than to be well liked, he became unpopular, too. By 1950, many people in America did not want to see him act or sing.
During the next twenty years, Robeson sang in a few concerts and acted as well, but he spent most of his time with friends and family. In 1973 he turned 75 years old. Finally, people recognized the contribution made by this gifted and dedicated man. Rutgers University honored him, and his son organized a “Salute to Robeson” event at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Robeson died in 1976 at the age of 77. Today Robeson is remembered as a talented performer whose ideas were ahead of his time.
William Still. Born a free man in Burlington County, New Jersey, William Still became a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and director of the General Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia. He managed the committee's finances, which were used to assist Harriet Tubman's rescue efforts. Still also established a network of safe houses and contacts stretching from the upper South to Canada.
Still also wrote “William Still's Underground Railroad”, an abolitionist account of the freedom network, in which he championed the hundreds of brave fugitives he interviewed as they made their way to the North. In one interview, the author made the dramatic discovery that the fugitive confronting him was his own brother, a man from whom he had been separated since boyhood.
Although Still had intended to use his interview material to assist other escaped slaves find their loved ones, he decided to compile the detailed information he had gathered into a book. This successful businessman first published William Still's Underground Railroad in 1873, making sure that the work would have a wide circulation by hiring agents to sell it in major cities.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). Born in Atlantic City. One of the foremost painters in twentieth-century America; he was the first black artist to be represented by a major commercial gallery and the first to receive mainstream recognition. His best known series was the “Migration of the Negro,” produced in 1940.
Larry Doby (1923-2003). Doby was the first African American to play in the American League, this occurring just eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson, of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League, became the first black in modern major league baseball. Doby was also the second African American to manage a major league baseball team—the Chicago White in 1978. Born in Camden, South Carolina, he moved to Paterson in his youth and became an all-state athlete in football, baseball, and basketball at Paterson Eastside High School.
Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) was a major contributor to African American literature. A talented writer of essays, reviews, and fiction, she was a vital force in the Harlem Renaissance. In 1919 she became the literary editor of Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP. She was born in Fredericksville, a hamlet in Camden County.
William Still (1821-1902). Abolitionist, historian, and businessman, Still is best known for being the key operative of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, a major center of Underground Railroad activity. In 1872 he published the classic The Underground Railroad, the first historical treatment of the legendary network to portray the runaway slaves as key heroic figures rather than the white abolitionists who aided them. Still was born and raised in Indian Mills (present-day Shamong) in Burlington County.
Florence Spearing Randolph (1866-1951). A member of the clergy and a social activist, Randolph was among the earliest African American women licensed to preach and serve as a pastor of a church. Her most distinguished pastorate, lasting twenty-one years, occurred at Wallace Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Summit. She was the founder in 1915 of the New Jersey State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, the state’s oldest black women’s organization. Born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, she moved to Jersey City in 1885.
John S. Rock (1825-1866). Abolitionist, physician, dentist, and lawyer, Rock in 1865 became the first African American admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was born and reared in Salem. He received his training in medicine and dentistry in Philadelphia and his legal training in Boston. Also in Boston he was active in the Underground Railroad, providing medical services to fugitive slaves who came to this city and interacting with such Underground Railroad figures as Harriet Tubman.