DETROIT — March 29 was Paul Robeson Remembrance Day at the Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery here. This event grew out of the gallery’s current exhibit, “Celebrating Paul Robeson: Athlete, Artist and Activist for Justice and World Peace.” The photos, record jackets, film posters and other historical documents that line the walls of the peace center, thanks to the memorabilia of Detroit resident James Wheeler, speak to the deep affection of people here for the legendary African American concert singer, film and stage actor and activist.

The gathering included remarks from some of Detroit’s most famous citizens, including City Council President Emeritus Erma Henderson, veteran labor union organizer and activist Dave Moore, Highland Park Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Arthur Carter (Highland Park is a city within the boundaries of Detroit) and Ruth Goldman, retired university educator in the field of reading development.

The panelists shared their memories of meeting the larger-than-life Robeson. Henderson said Robeson came to stay at her childhood home during one of his performances in Detroit. She remembered how her mother was in a frenzy trying to figure out how to provide the very, very tall Robeson with a bed that would fit him. The solution was to add mattress-height boxes to the end of a bed, to give it the necessary length. Henderson also remarked about the generosity of club owner Sunnie Wilson, who opened up his Forest Club as a performance venue for Robeson after the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era resulted in the banning of Robeson from the usual concert stages.

Dr. Carter, noting that he was Henderson’s godchild, said that earned him the privilege of riding his bicycle to her home when the famous Mr. Robeson visited. Explaining that he was just 14 years old at the time, Carter said he remembered Robeson as being “the tallest man I’d ever seen.” Carter also recalled how the man’s fantastic grin and his deep love for children attracted them to him like a magnet. “We kids would gather around him and he would sing to us in different languages and play word games with us. We were enchanted.” As an educator, Carter told the gathering, he is passionate that Robeson’s story be told to public school children, adding, “history is the story of what we choose to remember.”

Moore, now 95, first met Robeson when he was just a boy selling newspapers in front of a concert hall where Robeson performed. Not only did Robeson buy one of his 3-cent papers for $1.00, but he also got him hot dogs and ice cream.

Moore recalled Paul Robeson’s decisive role in getting workers to vote for the CIO to represent them at the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Mich. Moore explained that it was a struggle to get Black workers to support the union, because a two-tier wage system, based on race, was still in effect at the unionized General Motors and Chrysler shops. He described the Ford organizing drive’s focus on Black workers. It included coordinated efforts by the Rev. Charles Hill at Hartford Ave Baptist Church, Congressman Charles Diggs Sr. and the Rev. Ross from Shiloh Baptist Church. Moore stressed that, without several visits by Paul Robeson to speak in favor of the CIO, culminating with his final appearance before 60,000 workers in downtown Detroit the day before the election, the vote for the union would not have been successful.

Goldman related her warm memories of Robeson coming to a gathering in her home. After the party had been going for some time, Goldman’s husband Ruby returned home after a hard day of work as a milk deliveryman, looking disheveled and smelling of sour milk. Robeson graciously thanked him for opening his home, treating him with great respect. It was a memory that stayed with Ruby Goldman his whole life, and spoke volumes about Robeson’s respect for working people. Mrs. Goldman said, “Not only was he a famous actor and singer, he was a gentle gentleman and a “mensch!”

Members of the audience shared their own Robeson memories. He was described as “a giganitic presence against the forces of evil” by Michele Artt of the U.S. Peace Council. Autoworker retiree Carl Reinstein remembered how in the 1930s the civil war in Spain was halted for a day when Robeson sang from the battlefield, and how Robeson supported the communist leaders jailed under the notorious Smith Act. Al Fishman said the organizing of Ford was an example of how, when we fight for unity, we win. Flora Hommel recalled that Robeson sang across the border into Canada when the State Department banned him from traveling. General Baker of the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement said that he had to wage labor struggles in the 1960s without benefit of the lessons learned in the struggles of the ’30s and ’40s, because of the squelching of Paul Robeson’s history.

In an effort to make sure that Paul Robeson’s history will be preserved, the Swords in to Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery filmed the Remembrance Day event. The film will be edited and become a permanent part of the gallery’s archives.

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