Paul Robeson was nothing less than a “force of nature,” according to the cover article in the most recent Rutgers Magazine, an alumni publication. He lived a “remarkable life” that “stirred the world.” He left behind “an extraordinary legacy in athletics, the arts, and…the fight for human rights.”
But, no matter how powerful a force of nature–no matter how remarkable his life–no matter how he shook the world–no matter how extraordinary his legacy to athletics, arts and activism–
Rutgers simply cannot admit to its role in the destruction of the man’s reputation and his claim to honor in American history. Cannot, even now, admit its efforts to nullify that “extraordinary legacy.”
And cannot, while it continues to sell–or, more accurately, rent–the university’s own legacy to the highest bidders, concede the university’s leadership has never properly honored Paul Robeson.
Just days after Rutgers Magazine published its tribute–entitled “A Pioneer Like No Other”–the university’s leadership decided to rename Rutgers Stadium, not after its most famous football player and an internationally renowned actor and singer, but–almost comically–after an IT firm named SHI International. The rent for use of the Rutgers’ name for business purposes is something less than $11 million over the next seven years.
The adolescent jokes about the name of SHI stadium–where university commencements, as well as football games, will be held–already have been pouring in on social media.
The scatological gags soon will turn stale, but what will continue to disappoint those who view the university and its history as something more than a source of monetization is this:
Once more, Rutgers has betrayed Paul Robeson.
Rutgers Stadium should be named after him.
Read my earlier piece to understand why.
Rutgers has betrayed Paul Robeson. Again. For a buck. Again. Which, one supposes, is somehow more moral than betraying him for ideological reasons–or out of racial animus.
For the last eight years, Rutgers Stadium was named after High Point Solutions, a local computer company that was deeply involved in the construction of a $10 million Rutgers’ “supercomputer” that crashed just days after it was to go on line. One of the owners of High Point was an active supporter of Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
Hey, listen, a top Republican strategist runs public relations for Rutgers–so who should be surprised?
As it did when it rented the good name of Rutgers to High Point Solutions, the Rutgers leadership is making much of the close ties between its latest corporate seductee and New Jersey’s state university. Some 350 graduates (out of 4,000 employees) work for SHI. But none of the top executives were graduated from Rutgers. Headquarters–in the US–is in Somerset. Wow!
Rutgers and SHI International, perfect together.
SHI International is owned by a divorced couple, Thai Lee and Leo KoGuan, both of whom live in Texas–she in Austin, he in Sugar Land. The university’s claims of close SHI connections to Rutgers and its football team are a stretch.
Thai Lee, 60, who is South Korean, was raised in Bangkok, Thailand, the daughter of an economist. She has degrees from Amherst College and the Harvard Business School. Leo KoGuan, 64, is Indonesian; he received degrees from New York Law School and Columbia University. In 1989, the then married couple bought a computer company named Software House-the SH in the new title–for $1 million.
But it’s got plenty of money. SHI International now has $6 billion in annual sales. Thai Lee is CEO and president and owns 60 percent of the privately-held company; Leo KoGuan is board chairman and owns 40 percent. Much of his interest has been devoted to activities in China. He headed an investment company that was involved in the construction of a hotel tower in Shanghai. A Shanghai university named its law school after him when he pledged a $30 million donation.
It’s clear–despite his place in the history of the university and its football program–Rutgers officials never seriously consider naming Rutgers Stadium after Paul Robeson. No billionaire, or even millionaire, he. Just an almost unbelievably talented black American.
So the university’s leadership just can’t figure out how to monetize the right thing to do–so Robeson’s family just has to accept what it gets. A plaza here, a student center there. Nothing like a 40,000-seat stadium.
And that sort of attitude pervades the Rutgers Magazine article–entitled “A Pioneer Like No Other.” The piece provides already published factual details of his life, analyzed–usually inoffensively–by Rutgers faculty members. Don’t want to cross the university’s official version of history, do we?
What the magazine doesn’t admit is that the university–especially in the 1950s and 1960s–kept Robeson in a closet, refusing to acknowledge his contributions, refusing to support his nomination to the National College Football Hall of Fame, even when it was home to the organization, refusing even to hang his picture in Ballantine Gymnasium, although there was room for one of Ozzie Nelson.
The article is–literally–a whitewash. The truth scrubbed of anything that might contradict a perspective comfortable to white privilege.
The best the article can do to admit complicity in racism is concede that, while Robeson was a star on the football team a century ago, the Rutgers coach gave in to pressure and benched him to avoid embarrassing the university in a game against a Virginia university:
“Washington and Lee University had refused to take the field against a black man, and because it was Rutgers’ 150th anniversary, university administrators didn’t want to disrupt the festivities. (Rutgers coach George Foster) Sanford acquiesced, but the experience was so demoralizing that the coach refused to succumb to political pressure thereafter. Regardless, Robeson wasn’t permitted to stay in the same accommodations as his teammates while traveling, and he couldn’t mix with white classmates at formal social gatherings.”
Read that paragraph carefully. The coach benched Robeson because of racism to satisfy the university’s administrators who were very conscious of the importance of anniversaries, if not of racism–but the wording sounds like the coach subsequently changed his behavior. If Robeson was forced to stay in separate accommodations and couldn’t mix socially with teammates, that coach apparently didn’t apparently didn’t change his behavior–and didn’t try to change that of his white players.
After that, no mention in the article of the university’s efforts to make Paul Robeson disappear from Rutgers. No mention of erasing his name from the school’s history. No mention of the complicity in the destruction of the man’s career in sports and entertainment and law.
Robeson suffered because he was black and outspoken–and an institution that should have stood up for him did nothing for more than a half century.
Perhaps the most troubling section of the article deals with Robeson’s refusal to condemn Josef Stalin. A lot of words are devoted to wondering why Robeson would not criticize the Soviet leader. Was it idealism? Was it naivete? Was he, in fact, a communist and somehow deserving of the treatment and isolation that befell him?
Instead of asking why Robeson should be under any compulsion in the 1950s to criticize a foreign leader, an American ally who helped win World War 2 at the cost of tens of millions of his citizens, this article in 2019 should be asking why–60 or 70 years after all of us should be over the Red Scare–Rutgers still wants to know why Paul Robeson didn’t behave then like a good, compliant, right-wing Republican.
The answer is: Because, Rutgers Magazine, he was a free man with First Amendment rights and a mind–a very strong one–of his own.
Significantly, the article ends without telling the story of how the slow–and still unfinished–process of restoring Robeson to his place in university history began. It’s a positive story because, in the 1960s, students, white and black, worked together to remind the university’s leaders that they should act. The story is well-documented in the Robeson Collection at the university library–the obvious, if only selectively used, source for the Rutgers Magazine article.
Instead, the writer suddenly veers away from the role Rutgers and its students played, talking instead “of the rise, and political activism, of African-American artists like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, who credited Robeson with paving the way for their careers. In the 1970s, magazine articles in Sports Illustrated and Ebony helped to somewhat restore his reputation by spotlighting his considerable achievements.”
No, Rutgers Magazine, the effort began long before that–and it didn’t start with Poitier and Belafonte, Sports Illustrated and Ebony. It started with students who demanded an end to the cultural and spiritual exile of one of Rutgers’ most prominent sons–an exile perpetuated by the university leadership that, even now, tries to escape criticism for what it did, and continues to do, to this man. But the article couldn’t talk about the students without describing what the university leaders did or did not do. That might embarrass the white folks.
The piece limps to an end with this almost inexplicable coda–
“And Rutgers, as well as other educational institutions across the United States, began a tradition of naming facilities and programs after him.”
Began a tradition? C’mon guys, quit the SHI. Rutgers was dragged into what is still a minimalist recognition of Paul Robeson. Rutgers leaders also have a tradition of honoring anniversaries–we know that from the story of Robeson’s humiliation as a football player so the school could have a happy 150th founding university in 1916 while playing all-white Washington and Lee.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s graduation, as well as the 150th anniversary of the first collegiate football. Who better to honor than Paul Robeson? What better way than to name its football stadium after the university’s best football player?
Those of us who were part of the struggle to restore Robeson’s reputation–and affirm the values for which he suffered– could only wish that were true. Imagine the lesson that could have been learned, the statement that could have been made–
If, instead of the meretricious act of once more renting out the name of Rutgers Stadium to billionaire IT magnates, the university finally and forever called it what it should be called:
Paul Robeson Stadium.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a 1967 graduate of the Rutgers College School of Journalism. Students there began the effort then to explore and reveal Paul Robeson’s contributions to Rutgers. The story is told in the university archives and in the article mentioned above.