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Paul Robeson: A Legacy of Art, Leadership and Social Justice

Ask any Penn Stater and they’ll tell you that the HUB is the epicenter of our campus (but it is not a playground, just to make that clear). It’s close to nearly every building on campus makes it a convenient meeting place with friends or some quick eats between classes.

Although the HUB is frequented by the majority of the student body, few seem to remember that it is actually called the HUB-Robeson Center. Even fewer could tell you who Paul Robeson is, or why we have a center named after him. The HUB, built in 1953, is named after Penn State’s tenth president Ralph Hetzel, but the Robeson Center part has little Penn State connection. Other than speaking on campus in the 1960s, Robeson has no ties with the university, but his legacy inspired Penn State students to create a space for cultural discussion.

Paul Robeson was born in the late 19th century in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of a former runaway slave. He earned a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University where he excelled in both academics and athletics, earning 15 letters in four varsity sports and graduating as the valedictorian of his class. He attended Columbia Law School; however, chose to focus on theater, primarily acting and singing after experiencing severe racism at his firm. Robeson had great success in the arts, most notably in his performances in The Emperor Jones and Othello. 

What Paul Robeson is most recognized for, though, is as being a courageous advocate for the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the 1940s, he spoke out against racism, in support of organized labor and the working people and most importantly, promoted peace. Later on in life, he even met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects of world peace which was culminated in his autobiography, Here I Stand. It was his outspoken defense of civil liberties that attracted the attention of a group of African American students at Penn State.

In 1972, the university officially established a cultural center on campus to alleviate some of the cultural shock minority students faced when arriving to a predominantly white campus. It was created as a means of support for African American students and was expected to help build understanding between all races. It was later decided to name the center after Paul Robeson, a man whose achievements, dedication and commitment in the areas of intellectual development, physical excellence, humanitarian spirit and artistic accomplishments were to serve as a model for all college students.

It was not until 1999 that construction on the HUB made physical space available for the cultural center, officially becoming the HUB-Robeson Center as we now know it. To this day, it serves as an example for cultural centers on other university campuses.

So next time, you walk into the HUB, take some time to head over to the Robeson Cultural Center. Although Paul Robeson does not call Penn State his alma mater, his legacy of art, leadership, and social justice has certainly left its mark on country and our university.

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About the Author

Becca Erdman

Becca is a senior majoring in Public Relations with a minor in Sociology

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