At a banquet held Sunday night in honor of the 175th anniversary of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, the congregation received two gifts, one from a neighboring church and the other from denominational leaders.
The first gift to the historically black congregation was a formal apology from the Nassau Presbyterian Church for the long history of racism in Princeton that strained the relationship between the two churches and led to the removal of the Rev. William Robeson as pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1900.
The second gift, a reparation of sorts to symbolically make amends, was a resolution and a $173,000 grant from the Synod of the Northeast, the regional denominational body, to cover the two mortgages on the Robeson House. The house served as the parsonage during Robeson’s 21-year tenure as pastor of the church, and is the birth place of legendary actor and singer Paul Robeson, the minister’s son.
“This is a milestone for the presbytery and a blessing for the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church,” church member Shirley Satterfield said of the apology.
Denomination leaders spent the past year researching the history of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, drafting the apology, and working out the details for the grant. But the effort actually began more than a decade ago when the Rev. David Prince was the interim pastor at the church. He and his wife, Nancy Prince, were told about how Rev. Robeson was forced out of the congregation because whites thought he was stirring up too much trouble. The removal has remained an open wound for the local black community all these years.
Nancy Prince became interested in the issue, read biographies about the Robesons, and then dug up the minutes of church and presbytery meetings in the Presbytery Historical Society. From the research, she and her husband came to the conclusion that a public apology for past actions would be appropriate.
In the early 1800s, Princeton was totally segregated. Slaves and servants had to sit in the balcony for services at the First Presbyterian Church, now Nassau Presbyterian Church. After there was a fire at the church, a church for blacks was formed on Witherspoon Street in 1840.
Robeson began working at the church in 1879. The former slave fought for the rights of black people, and preached the gospel of racial equality. He became increasingly vocal and worked to organize blacks regionally. White people felt threatened by his efforts, so they orchestrated his removal from the church. The New Brunswick Presbytery, the governing body for area churches, was going to remove Robeson, so he resigned under duress, left the Presbyterian church, and later became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
A review this year of the minutes from 1900 by church leaders showed there were no misdeeds by Robeson that were cited as reasons for his removal.
“The unrest and dissatisfaction on the part of others in Princeton: was cited as one reason for his removal, according to documents.
Many parishioners were not supportive of the move, and they signed a petition opposing the removal.
Some members of the Nassau Street Presbyterian Church and other church leaders today refer to the move to push Robeson out as “an ecclesiastical lynching.”
The parsonage the Robeson family had lived in on Witherspoon Street was sold shortly after Robeson’s departure because the church needed money. In 2005, the church was able to buy the house back for $435,000, but the church has been paying off two mortgages on the house while also trying to raise money to restore it. Church members hope to turn the house into a center for the study and advancement of human rights that will also celebrate the legacy of the Robeson family.
“What better use of mission money could there be than to assist the congregation that is seeking to discern its future in its changing neighborhood? wrote David Prince in a letter last year. Prince died last December. His wife was able to attend the banquet Sunday night to see the apology and grant proposals become reality.
The grant will help the church focus its resources on restoring the house and creating a community resource where people can learn about the past and address social issues, church members said. The house is being restored by architect Kevin Wilkes of Princeton Design Guild.
At the banquet, the Rev. Lauren McFeaters and the Rev. John White read the letter from the Nassau Presbyterian Church addressing racism in Princeton’s past.
“We lament the sins of our forebearers and acknowledge the institutional complicity of the First Presbyterian Church in our community’s hesitance to embrace the abolition of slavery and, thereafter, our community’s participation in the establishment and maintenance of Jim Crow segregation,” says the letter signed by more than 25 of the church’s representatives.
A resolution from the presbytery apologizing for the removal of Robeson was also read by the synod moderator. Church leaders said the letter and resolution are a beginning, and promised to continue to show solidarity with the church through both words and actions.
The Rev. Peter Paris, the keynote speaker for the evening, lifted up the Rev. Robeson as a “shining example of what faith can do.”
Paris applauded the efforts of the Nassau Presbyterian and Witherspoon Presbyterian churches.
“This evening unites the spirit of apology with that of forgiveness,” he said. “The churches can move forward together, working for the freedom and just treatment of all peoples.”