NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - In 1915, Paul Leon Robeson enrolled at Rutgers University, the third African-American to enter the school. Four years later he graduated valedictorian and a celebrated college athlete and singer. He went on to become an world renowned performer and commentator on social issues.
On Wednesday the university held a ceremonial groundbreaking for Paul Robeson Plaza at Voorhees Mall, just off College Avenue.
"We're putting this right here in the center of the university," Rutgers president Robert Barchi said during the ceremonies. "It's not here by accident. It's right here where people can see it and think about."
The groundbreaking comes four months before the university begins a year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of Robeson's graduation from Rutgers.
Barchi told the crowd of more than 100 people at the groundbreaking that Robeson excelled in the classroom and on athletic fields, became an acclaimed singer and actor,
"He could have been anything he wanted to be, but he chose to be an activist," Barchi said. "I don't think we can do any better than to hold up Paul Robeson as a model to our students."
Members of the Rutgers class of 1971 first proposed creating a Robeson memorial three years ago.
"Our greatest alumni was ripped from the pages of our history," said Jim Savage, the chair of the class of 1971 campaign to build the plaza. He thanked the many people who had contributed to the online crowd funding effort to finance the project. Savage and others also thanked members of the Robeson family who has helped with the project.
Savage called Robeson the "ultimate renaissance Rutgers man."
Flicia McGinty, executive vice chancellor of the Rutgers New Brunswick campus and chair of the Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration, thanks Savage and other members of the class of 1971 for the work. "You are putting Paul Robeson on the tongues of the people," McGinty said.
"I share your hope that Paul Robeson Plaza becomes an invitation to students and the entire Rutgers community to discover and honor Paul Robeson's contributions in the years and decades to come," she said.
The Rev. Jimmie Miller, pastor of the St. Thomas AME Church Zion Church in Somerville - the same church where Robeson's father had been a pastor - spoke of the lasting impact of celebrated alumnus.
"We recognize that Paul Robeson has been a legacy, not only for Rutgers, but for black people and for people of all nations," he said.
The son of a runaway slave, Robeson attended Rutgers on an academic scholarship. He won 15 varsity letters. He was also a member of the Intercollegiate Debating Association.
After graduating, Robeson earned a law degree at Columbia Law School. and used his talents in theater and music to promote African-American history and culture.
He spoke out for dignity for democratic rights for people around the world.
Next April, the university will celebrate the completion of the plaza.