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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.