A small envelope landed on the floor last Saturday as workers ripped apart a plaster ceiling at the Paul Robeson House. The envelope would have been easy to miss, and could have easily landed in the dumpster. But Martha Sword spotted it in a pile of debris, reached down, and pulled it out.
Inside the envelope was a worn piece of paper with brown spots. But the cursive writing on the paper was as clear as if it had been written yesterday.
It was William Drew Robeson Jr.’s monthly commuting pass from April of 1898. The pass was issued three weeks after his youngest brother, Paul Robeson, was born.
“Issued for the sole purpose of attending high school in Trenton NJ,” reads the pass that granted the Rev. Drew Robeson’s eldest son the right to 46 trips between Princeton and Trenton.
” We assume it fell through a floor board crack for us to find 118 years later, living history in our hands today,” said Kevin Wilkes of Princeton Design Guild, who is leading the restoration of the Paul Robeson House, which is owned by the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. The Rev. Robeson lived in the house when he was the pastor at the church. Paul Robeson, the actor, singer and athlete, was born at the Witherspoon Street home.
Permits to begin the demolition and renovation of the house were granted last week. Volunteers from the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Nassau Presbyterian Church began the interior demolition of walls and ceilings last Saturday in preparation for structural repairs and new bathrooms.
The Robeson House Committee is seeking to raise $750,000 for the project to preserve the history and legacy of the Robeson family.
Princeton was a Jim Crow town. William Jr. would have been 16 or 17 at the time the pass was issued, and would have taken the railroad or stagecoach to Trenton for school. Black children in Princeton were relegated to a segregated school system that ended at the 8th grade.
In “Here I Stand”, Paul Robeson wrote about the school issue: “Princeton was Jim Crow: the grade school that I attended was segregated and Negroes were not permitted in any high school. My oldest Brother, Bill, had to travel to Trenton – eleven miles away – to attend high school.”
William Jr. was determined to get an education though, and he became a doctor and eventually settled in Washington, D.C.
This discovery was amazing. It gave me goose bumps when I held it and read it,” Wilkes said. “It crystallized the history of segregation in one sharp pierce, thinking about Bill Robeson making the trek each and every day to learn.”