WHY ISN’T RUTGERS STADIUM NAMED AFTER PAUL ROBESON?

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Paul Robeson as a member of the RU football team–a two-time All-American.

The Rutgers University football stadium is named after a company in Sparta, High Point Solutions,  whose owner, Thomas Mendiburu, is an active  supporter of President Donald Trump and served on Trump’s finance transition committee. Trump, famously, is a great admirer of Russia and of its president, Vladimir Putin, someone who may have interfered with the 2016 American election.

The Rutgers University football stadium, many contend, should have been named after Paul Robeson, a two-time All-American end for the Rutgers football team–and that was certainly not his only extraordinary accomplishment. But, alas, Robeson, famously, was also a great admirer of Russia,  a country that helped–at the cost of some 20 million of its people–to end World War 2.

To be an admirer of Russia from 1917 until 2016–with time off for World War 2–was considered treasonous, especially by conservatives and Republicans,  and that is why Robeson’s name is not on Rutgers stadium.  Indeed,  for most of the 20th Century, his name wasn’t on anything having to do with Rutgers, a slur abetted or ignored (same thing, really) by meanstream media outlets in New Jersey and elsewhere for decades.

Thomas Mendiburu

To be an admirer of Russia now, even to the point of defending its leader’s murders of dissidents and journalists and then, as Trump did, accusing this nation, the United States,  of employing its own Russian-style “killers,” makes you a soulmate of the president of the United States.

Hey, fashions change. So long as you’re white and rich.

This all gets mentioned here for a variety of reasons. High Point Solutions was designated the “lead contractor” in the construction of a $10 million supercomputer that subsequently had to be shut down. That is a news story, although one–like the earlier effort by Rutgers to erase Robeson from its history–generally ignored by the mainstream press. A compliant commercial press never changes, as long as access is on the line; they even apparently teach that to rookies at The Daily Targum, Rutgers’ student newspaper, which hasn’t yet discovered the shutdown of the $10 million supercomputer.

Also, it is now 50 years since a small group of students–journalism students, but not Targum staffers–tripped over the Robeson-at-Rutgers story and decided to make it an issue. They succeeded, primarily because the growing African-American enrollment at Rutgers in the 1960s confronted the university with the ugliness of how the university–especially its athletic directors and coaches, but others as well–handled the memory of Paul Robeson.  Four buildings now bear the name Robeson are located on three campuses of the university–Newark, Busch (Piscataway) and Camden.

But the one building that,  by all force of history, logic and fairness should have been named for the university’s greatest football player, is named, instead, for a company that paid Rutgers $6.5 million for the privilege and, a few years later, got the supercomputer contract.

And a third reason to invoke the rehabilitation of Robeson’s name now is that, just as Rutgers officials did a half-century ago, the university’s administration is now stonewalling the search for a little bit of truth. In 1967, it was the truth about Paul Robeson’s achievements; in 2017, it is the truth about how and why the supercomputer named “Caliburn” came to be built, who built it, and how it came to be shut down.

The university, of course, has the legal firepower to define the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) as a nullity in this case–and is trying to do that, elevating the sneaky dodge as a tactic over transparency. It very well may succeed. So, let’s go back to the time 50 years ago when Rutgers failed to suppress information about the effort to make a non-entity out of Paul Robeson.

I can do that because I was there then. I was one of those journalism students, members of the short-lived Rutgers Press Club, who put out a weekly newspaper called The Press Club Weekly, or PCW.

Paul Robeson in Emperor Jones

The credit for starting the series on Paul Robeson, however, goes to a journalism student named Anthony Codella who carved out a beat for the PCW at the university’s archives. He came across material on Robeson’s spectacular athletic and academic career at Rutgers and published an article entitled “Paul Robeson: A Skeleton in Rutgers’ Closet.” The piece appeared almost exactly 50 years ago–March 31, 1967.

Codella kept plugging and other members of the staff joined the effort. The PCW reported how Rutgers officials had blocked Robeson’s induction, not just to the university’s athletic hall of fame, but also to the College Football Hall of Fame–then located in New Brunswick, the site, in 1869, of the first college football game ever, between Rutgers and Princeton.

Ozzie Nelson and famous family: He wasn’t half the football player Robeson was but he was white and not pro-Russia. So his picture hung in the Ballantine gym–but not Robeson’s.

Athletic Director Albert Twitchell hung Ozzie Nelson’s photo on the wall at the old Ballantine gym, but flatly refused to hang Robeson’s. He refused to nominate Robeson to the college football hall of fame. Every refusal was another story for the PCW–and we editorialized about the unfairness of making one of Rutgers’ most accomplished alumni a non-person at the university he graced.

A number of PCW staff members interviewed Paul Robeson, Jr., and on one memorable night,  got the chance to talk to Robeson himself, seriously ailing and barely able to speak from his home near Philadelphia. I remember some of our staff had tears in their eyes. Of course, before Codella’s articles, few of us knew much about Robeson. But we learned.

This is some of what we learned, taken from his biography at the National College Football Hall of Fame:

With teammates

Paul Robeson played four years for the famous coach, G. Foster Sanford. Rutgers had a 22-6-3 record in that time. In 31 games Rutgers scored 941 points to opponents’ 191. Robeson was a powerful contributor to that record. In 1915 against Rensselaer he recovered an opponent’s fumble and set up a touchdown. In 1917 he scored on 40-yard and 37-yard pass plays against Fort Wadsworth. Against Syracuse the same year he caught passes on two key plays and, on defense, intercepted a pass. Also in 1917 against Newport Naval Reserve, he caught one touchdown pass, and was outstanding on defense. This game was played Nov. 24. Newport was undefeated and heavily favored because it had an all-star line- up of former college stars. Rutgers won 14-0. Robeson was a two-time All-America end….

Robeson won 12 letters in four sports–four in football, three each in basketball and baseball, and two in track. 

That was athletics. Here are some academic highlights:

At Rutgers, Robeson was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was valedictorian of the class in 1919. He won the college oratorical contest four straight years and gave the commencement address at graduation.

He played pro football and earned enough to put himself through Columbia Law School.

Paul Robeson in Showboat

And, of course, he was a brilliant performing artist–a singer and an actor on Broadway and in the movies. The bio continues: His rich basso made his signature song “Ol’ Man River” a classic. He starred in plays– “the Emperor Jones”, “Othello’, Showboat” and others–in the U.S., Europe, and Africa. In 1925 he made a recording that sold 55,000 copies in four months.

But he also was aware of America’s own special brand of apartheid known as Jim Crow. He was drawn to left-wing politics and saw Russia and other communist countries as holding out the possibility of true equality for people of color. For that, he was hounded by McCarthyite witch-hunters in Congress and elsewhere and his work was banned. I am no expert on the life and times of Paul Robeson, but I know this–

Paul Robeson, as a black man in Jim Crow America, had far more justification for embracing Russia then than a white, billionaire president of the United States has now.

The Press Club Weekly did what journalism is supposed to do–it gathered the facts and presented them in perspective. In the face of Twitchell’s refusal to nominate Robeson to the College Football Hall of Fame, the Press Club itself decided to raise money to buy a membership in the hall of fame. Members of the Press Club signed on to a temp agency and stuffed envelopes to raise money to pay the membership fees.

Once we were a member, we nominated Robeson.

Rutgers voted against the nomination. And it was rejected and continued to be rejected for nearly 30 more years.

It took the activism of black student organizations years to force Rutgers to confront its past. When Robeson died in 1976, he still had not received the recognition he deserved (and still hasn’t). He was not admitted to the Rutgers Athletic Hall of Fame until 1988 and the national College Football Hall of Fame until 1995.

The Trump Transition team includes the owner of High Point Solutions.

The deal with High Point Solutions to sell the Rutgers stadium’s naming rights is just an extension of the university’s tone-deafness to its own past, The extraordinary achievements of Paul Robeson are priceless to the university’s history–and compare that to the $6.5 million over 10 years it received from Mendiburu’s firm. (Or even to the $35 million earned by the University of Minnesota by selling the naming rights to TCF Bank).

Maybe, if the Robeson family could have outbid Tom Mendiburu and offered, say, $7 million for the naming rights, Rutgers football would now be played in Paul Robeson Stadium.

There were those who raised questions about the High Point Solutions deal three years ago–even more now, in the light of the supercomputer fiasco. But Rutgers bureaucrats do what they have done for decades–play to the complacent–and just lazy–establishment press, ignore the lesser voices, and do what big universities now normally seem to do.

Sell out to the highest bidder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 comments

  1. Joe

    I was at Rutgers in the early 60s (RU ’63, New Brunswick) and I was struck by the absence of Robeson from the roster of honored alumni. There was Ozzie Nelson but no Paul Robeson. Robeson was a non-person at RU, he did not exist. I brought up the issue in my dorm building and they looked at me like I was crazy or out of touch. There are a group of richey rich condos in central Princeton, entitled Paul Robeson Place. The condos go for a million and up, one costs $2.7 million. Robeson must be rolling over in his grave.

    • Bob Braun

      Robeson was born and grew up in Princeton so, I suppose, that gave the developers moral license. Can you imagine–if he had just stuck to entertainment and stayed away from politics, he (or one of his grandchildren) might have been able to afford one of those condos. Don’t know why, but what you describe reminds me a bit of poverty tourism. Another thing to remember is that Robeson–and all of what he stood for–emerged from obscurity in the 1960s and 1970s and then slipped into distant memory after that. As what happened to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who the man was and what he did (and, more important, what was done to him), are all now safely sanitized.

  2. TK 2017

    With reader/commenter booklady’s (2/20) post to 17 February (“Caliburn”) still fresh in mind, I’m phoning in a few links which illustrate more of the unraveling relationship between government, science, and the increasingly plastic concept of verifiable figures in this, the newest era of relaxed standards regarding the traditional role of international criminal enterprise, the mores and values of big business, and the rock solid utility of ideologically cultured and crate-raised artificial fact.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/13/one-big-thing-that-trumps-government-is-missing-scientists/?utm_term=.30babc9be173#comments

    All we need do, to make it all so beautiful, Donald says, is to trust him. I repeat, trust – in Donald J. Trump.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-13/kushners-set-to-get-400-million-from-chinese-on-marquee-tower

    POTUS 45 commands us to finally abolish the vexing existential question of whether or not our Free Markets were ever truly free. Rise up, Herr Trump says, and break the chains that shackle the creativity of our poor, under-appreciated billionaires. Look at how they’ve been made to stoop and struggle beneath the level of their rightful station! Emancipate those markets! Obliterate every last vestige of socialist tyranny! Free the super-wealthy!

    Where’s Paul Ryan? Come on up here, Paul. What a handsome guy. You been working out? Look at this guy!

    Listen, what’s the value of all those decades of taxpayer sacrifice and public bailouts if we don’t have the all-American determination to rally now behind Donald J. Trump, do exactly as he says, and go … all the way to hell! And back? Is that even possible?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_intelligence

    The future, when ushered in by reliable sociopaths, will of course be ever more stark than the vision as sold.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgkyrW2NiwM

    Because ‘traditional’ business values still declare: Never willingly concede a predatory advantage to an opponent. Never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHgv4McMJUk

    As for cheating an honest man … that’s why here in Jersey, Chris Christie successfully pals with so many (publicly funded) lawyers, while endlessly sucking up to deep-pocketed market mavens. The old one-two. The ‘useful’ truth thus comes down to reward versus risk. What Christie, the brand, for example, has to gain vs. what can be proven against Christie, the dark operator – and what he can afford to professionally contest – in court. Under Trump, however, a predictable standard for even this eroding threshold of corruption (hey, it’s all in how you look at it) flies straight out the penthouse window.

    Self respect has become, for so many of the few, simply another market commodity, governed by the (criminally) powerful who traffic in insane sums of invasive capital, with a perennially tolerable percentage of their proceeds going to specialist research organizations that team so effectively to make it all look proper and presentable.

    None of whom are crooks. Not a one. Just regular altar boys.

    Posing as pious (or plain balls-out) market disruptors, they organize and bring to bear the hard-earned gains of brain researchers, social scientists, umm … bankers and financiers. Endless chains of IT people. And best of all, the sine qua non: Said to be incorruptible philanthropists, who care so much about people and democratic processes that they’re perfectly willing to see them subverted, wrung of “profit”, and remade, through even less democratic institutions, while witnessing the impoverishment of routine levels of human compassion pay off in countless ways.

    Medical care? Who most deserves it!

    The Trump iteration of America Inc is a high class organization, top to bottom. Strictly high class. A gold-plater’s dream.

    This Trump regime will ask the tough questions, steadfast in their noble refusal to subsidize failure (with the harshest judgment reserved for the poor), because that is un-American. It’s also against the Trump natural order. Unless the wealthy happen to collect the subsidy, in which case it’s beautiful.

    More than that, it’s Providence. So get out those weary checkbooks, suckers. Billionaire culture does not come cheap.

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