William Drew Robeson I

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William Drew Robeson I
William Drew Robeson (1845-1918).jpg
Born (1844-07-27)July 27, 1844
Died May 17, 1918(1918-05-17) (aged 73)
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Maria Louisa Bustill
Children Paul Robeson
Parent(s) Benjamin Robeson (1820-c1889)
Sabra (1825-c1885)

William Drew Robeson I (July 27, 1844 – May 17, 1918) was the father of Paul Robeson and the minister of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey from 1880 to 1901. The Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church had been built for its black members by the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton.[1][2][3][4][5]

Robeson escaped from slavery in North Carolina at the age of 15 and went to the free state of Pennsylvania. During the American Civil War, he worked for the Union Army. Afterward he earned an undergraduate degree and one in theology at Lincoln College, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. He went into the ministry. After his marriage, he lived with his family in Princeton, New Jersey. He became a widower in 1904 and served as a pastor at African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches.

Birth and escape from slavery[edit]

He was born into slavery as William Drew Robeson in 1844 to Benjamin Robeson (1820-c1889) and Sabra (1825-c. 1885). They were enslaved on the Roberson[6] plantation near Cross Road Township and Raleigh, Martin County, North Carolina.[7][8] Cross Road Township is near Raleigh, North Carolina. He was a descendant of the Igbo people.[6]

In 1860, when he was 15 years old, Robeson escaped slavery with his brother Ezekiel[6] through the Underground Railroad and they made their way to Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania.[8]

Life in freedom[edit]

During the American Civil War, Robeson served in the Union Army as a laborer, entering in 1861 at the age of 16 to join the effort to end slavery in the South.

Afterward, Robeson studied at Lincoln College (now a university), where he earned an A.B. in 1873 and Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1876.[1][6]


While a student at Lincoln University he met Maria Louisa Bustill, a young woman from a prominent Quaker family who were part of the Philadelphia black bourgeoisie; she was of Igbo African, Anglo-American and Lenape Native American. Her Bustill ancestors had been free since 1723.[6] They married in 1878.[6] They had a total of seven children together: Gertrude (who died young), William Drew Jr., called "Bill"; John Bunyan Reeve aka "Reed," Benjamin, Marian, and Paul LeRoy Robeson (1898–1976), the youngest. Another child died at birth, but the name is not known.[6] Louisa became a teacher and together they stressed education for their children.

In 1904 Louisa died in Princeton when Paul was six years old. Her clothes had caught fire from a coal-burning stove in a kitchen accident.[6][9]

Princeton to Westfield[edit]

Robeson served as minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey from 1880 until 1901.[1] It was built for the black members of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton (now known as Nassau Presbyterian Church).[4][5] He was ousted from the Princeton pastorate after more than 20 years of service. His grandson Paul Robeson, Jr. wrote that William Drew Robeson had pushed hard to have his eldest son Bill admitted to Princeton University, but was refused because of his African ancestry. Robeson reportedly appealed directly to Woodrow Wilson, then president of the university, which caused a controversy and the ouster.[6] The younger Bill Robeson went on to complete college and medical school, becoming a doctor.

Other accounts suggest that Reverend Robeson had gotten at cross purposes with his congregation over his work. He was said to have aligned himself "on the wrong side of a church fight," having apparently refused to bow to pressure from the "white residents of Princeton" that he cease to "speak out against social injustice." Upon his dismissal, Reverend William Drew Robeson bypassed any need "to recriminate and rebuke." "As I review the past," he said, "and think upon many scenes, my heart is filled with love." In closing his last address to his Princeton congregation, he implored them, "Do not be discouraged, do not think your past work is in vain."[10]

Robeson accepted a call to Westfield, New Jersey, where he was pastor of the Downer Street Saint Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) from 1907 to 1910, living there with his family. He led the congregation through construction of their church, completed in 1908. The younger children attended the Washington School at Elm and Orchard streets. As a 12-year-old, Paul was already a skilled enough athlete to play in baseball games for the high school team. The Robesons lived on the south side of Spring Street, where it intersects with Rahway Avenue. The street is now called Watterson Street, and the house was taken down.[6][9]

Westfield to Somerville[edit]

In 1910 Robeson moved to Somerville, New Jersey, where he led the congregation at the Saint Thomas AME Zion Church.[6]

Death and burial[edit]

Robeson died on May 17, 1918. He was buried in Princeton Cemetery next to his wife.


  1. ^ a b c "Historic People". Historical Society of Princeton. Retrieved 2013-09-05. William Drew Robeson was father of performer and activist Paul Robeson. In 1860, at age fifteen, the enslaved Drew Robeson made his escape to Pennsylvania from North Carolina to serve as a laborer for the Union Army. Robeson went on to receive an A.B. in 1873 and a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree in 1876 from Lincoln University. In Princeton, he served as pastor from 1880-1901 at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. 
  2. ^ "Preacher’s son brought area a brush with film, song.". Citizen Voice. Retrieved 2008-04-21. William Drew Robeson served as pastor at the Church of the Covenant from 1878 to 1880 before moving to Princeton, New Jersey, where he preached at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church ... 
  3. ^ Moss, Emerson I. (1992). African-Americans in the Wyoming Valley. ISBN 0-937537-02-0. 
  4. ^ a b Robeson Jr., Paul (2001). The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939 (PDF). Wiley. pp. 1–9. ISBN 0-471-24265-9. Retrieved 2013-09-05. A wealthy white Presbyterian church had built Witherspoon for its black members after having accommodated them in balcony seats for decades. But ultimate control remained with the white authorities, and one day they took William Drew’s pastorate from him on a spurious pretext. 
  5. ^ a b "A Brief Account of the Heritage and Creation of Nassau Presbyterian Church". Nassau Presbyterian Church. Retrieved 2013-09-05. In the time of [the First Presbyterian Church] sanctuary construction, ninety African-American members worshiped separately. After the church was built, there continued a separation that led to the formation of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1846. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Robeson Jr., Paul (2001). The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939 (PDF). Wiley. pp. 3–9. ISBN 0-471-24265-9. Retrieved 2008-12-27. 
  7. ^ "His Father's Voice". New York Times. April 8, 2001. Retrieved 2008-04-21. William Drew Robeson, a former slave who had become a clergyman, and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, who died in a fire when Paul was 6. 
  8. ^ a b "Profile". National Public Radio. May 8, 1999. In 1860, when he was 15, William Drew Robeson escaped slavery in North Carolina. ... 
  9. ^ a b "Paul Robeson". Bay Area Robeson. Retrieved 2007-02-14. Louisa, in ill health and nearly blind, was set alight when a coal from the stove fell on her long dress and she failed to notice. Mortally burned, she died several days later. 
  10. ^ Duberman, Martin, Paul Robeson 1989, pp. 6-7, Boyhood

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