NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - It was 1944, when Paul Robeson, a graduate of Rutgers University, was performing in William Shakespeare's "Othello" in New York City.
Despite his busy schedule, Robeson, the renowned writer, athlete, and activist, took time to travel from New York to New Brunswick to participate in a local program, recalled C. Roy Epps, the city resident, and leader of the Civic League of Greater New Brunswick.
"We have a very clear understanding of why Paul Robeson is endeared to us," Epps told city council members Wednesday night.
Epps' comments came moments before city council members voted unanimously for an ordinance to change the name of Commercial Avenue to Paul Robeson Boulevard.
Several people praised the city for making the change, including an official from Rutgers University and a representative of Sharon Baptist Church, who said visitors will now get directions to the church that will take them down the street honoring Robeson.
Renaming the street is one of several events planned for a year-long celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Robeson's graduation from Rutgers in 1919, when he was recognized as valedictorian of his class.
The current address for New Brunswick's Paul Robeson Community School for the Arts is on Commercial Avenue, but that will change to the new name later this year. Behind the school is Feaster Park, which the city is renovating. Among the improvements will be the creation of a Paul Robeson Plaza that will have a statue of the famous social activist, singer, scholar, actor, All-American athlete, lawyer, humanist and advocate for international peace.
Rutgers has also planned a series of events honoring its alumnus. This spring the university will open the Paul Robeson Plaza at Voorhees Mall, just off College Avenue.
Epps, who thanked the council members and Mayor James Cahill for renaming the nearly mile-long street, was accompanied at the meeting by more than a dozen youths active in the Civic League, all of them wearing shirts with Robeson's name and picture, and the words "Class of 1919 Centennial."
Councilmen Glenn Fleming, who is a social studies teacher in Hamilton, urged the youths to follow Robeson's example of going after what they want.
"I just want to encourage them to learn about Paul Robeson," Fleming said.
People in the audience applauded the youths and applauded the council when they passed the ordinance.