Robeson exhibit spotlights links to Motor City

DETROIT — An exhibition celebrating the life of Paul Robeson opened here Jan. 19, at Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery. You can catch it there until April 12.

The exhibit, titled “Celebrating Paul Robeson: Athlete, Artist and Activist for Justice and World Peace,” presents an array of photographs, record album jackets and liner notes, newspaper clippings, books, posters, playbills and other materials highlighting the life and career of the famed African American actor and activist.

The collection’s owner, James L. Wheeler, 66, says the exhibit provides a special focus on Robeson’s relationship to the city of Detroit.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Robeson visited Detroit on behalf of the autoworkers attempting to organize what later became the United Auto Workers union at Ford Motor Company. Robeson performed at local churches and theaters and in an outdoor rally of tens of thousands at Detroit’s downtown Cadillac Square. He was instrumental in building popular support for the workers’ cause.

Even as McCarthyite repression destroyed Robeson’s acting and singing career in the 1950s, African American churches in Detroit stood by him. “When he couldn’t travel and he couldn’t sing, the Black churches in Detroit welcomed Paul Robeson. The Black churches did not succumb to the threats of the government,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler described Robeson’s artistic legacy as sending an activist message to future generations. Robeson believed that “an artist must take sides. An artist must choose slavery or freedom,” Wheeler said.

Wendy Hamilton, the gallery’s director, expressed the peace center’s pride in being able to host the three-month-long exhibition. The Robeson exhibit fits into the center’s mission of peace and social justice, she said.

“What I know of Paul Robeson is that his whole life was about speaking truth to power, pointing out things in the world that were wrong and that needed changing,” she noted.

Hamilton said she hopes the exhibit will stimulate viewers’ interest in both Robeson’s life and Detroit’s colorful working-class history.

“I hope Detroiters will learn about the connection he had with our city,” she said.

Related events include a film series at the 1515 Broadway theater in Detroit, which will show three of Robeson’s popular movies, and a tribute concert to be held at the Central United Methodist Church on April 12. On March 29, the Swords into Plowshares Peace Center will host a “remembrance day” during which Detroit residents who knew Robeson will talk about their memories of his life.

For more information see: www.swordsintoplowsharesdetroit.org.

jwendland@politicalaffairs.net