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William Drew Robeson I
Born July 27, 1844(1844-07-27)
Died May 17, 1918 (aged 73)
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Maria Louisa Bustill
Children Paul Robeson
Parents Benjamin Robeson (1820-c1889)
Sabra (1825-c1885)

William Drew Robeson I (July 27, 1844 – May 17, 1918) was the father of Paul Robeson and the minister of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey from 1880 to 1901.[1][2][3]


Birth and escape from slavery

William was born in 1844 to Benjamin Robeson (1820-c1889) and Sabra (1825-c1885) who were enslaved on the Robeson plantation near Cross Road Township, Martin County, North Carolina.[4][5] Cross Road Township is near Raleigh, North Carolina. He was a descendant of the Igbo people.[6] In 1860, when he was 15 years old, William escaped on the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia.[5] He left North Carolina by crossing the Maryland border into Pennsylvania. It was in Pennsylvania that he served in the Union Army as a laborer. In 1876 he received a degree in theology from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.[6][1]


While at Lincoln University he met Maria Louisa Bustill and they married in 1879. Maria was described as a mulatto in the 1880 Census. In 1880 they were living on Witherspoon Street in Princeton, New Jersey, and together they had the following children:

  • Gertrude Lascet Robeson (1880) who died as an infant
  • William Drew Robeson Jr. (November 8, 1881[7]-?) who was a physician in Washington, D.C.
  • Benjamin Congleton Robeson (September 19, 1892 [8]-1966) was a military chaplain with the 369th Infantry Regiment,formerly the 15th New York National Guard Regiment. The unit was also known as The Black Rattlers,in addition to several other nicknames. The 369th Infantry Regiment was known for being the first Negro Regiment during World War I. He married Frances Elizabeth Cline, and later served as Pastor of Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem[8]
  • J.B. Reeve Robeson (1886-?) aka Reed Robeson, who was born in March 1886 and he moved to Detroit and may have worked at a hotel and died in poverty
  • Marian Margaret Robeson (December 1, 1894-February 1977)[9] she married Dr. William Forsythe and moved to Philadelphia
  • Paul LeRoy Robeson (1898-1976) who was an orator, singer and actor.

Another child died at birth, but the name is not known.[10][11][6]

Death of Maria

In 1904 his wife, Maria died in Princeton from burn injuries sustained when her clothes caught fire from a coal burning stove.[6][12]

Princeton to Westfield

William was minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey from 1880 until 1901. Reverend Robeson was ousted from the Princeton Pastorate after over twenty-years of service with no clear reasons given. Reverend Robeson's own congregation had been a contributing factor to his dismissal at Witherspoon Church.

Later testimony would reveal that he had aligned himself "on the wrong side of a church fight," having apparently refused to bow to pressure from the "white residents of Princeton" that he cease his tendency to "speak out against social injustice." Upon his dismissal, Reverend William Drew Robeson bypassed any need "to recriminate and rebuke." "As I review the past," he said, "and think upon many scenes, my heart is filled with love." In closing his last address to his Princeton congregation, he implored them, "Do not be discouraged, do not think your past work is in vain."[13]

From 1907 to 1910, he took up residence in Westfield, New Jersey where he was reverend of the Downer Street Saint Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The church itself was built in 1908 while William was reverend. His children attended the Washington School at Elm and Orchard streets, and his son Paul, as a 12-year-old, played in baseball games for the high school team. The Robeson's lived on the South side of Spring Street, where it intersects with Rahway Avenue. The street is now called Watterson Street and the home is no longer extant.[6][12]

Westfield to Somerville

In 1910 William moved to Somerville, New Jersey and took over the congregation at the Saint Thomas African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.[6]

Death and burial

He died on May 17, 1918 and is buried in Princeton Cemetery with his wife.


  • 1876 Degree in theology from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania
  • 1879 Marriage to Maria Louisa Bustill
  • 1880 Begin tenure at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton
  • 1880 US Census
  • 1900 US Census
  • 1901 End tenure at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton
  • 1904 Death of Maria Louisa Bustill, his wife
  • 1907 Move to Westfield, New Jersey
  • 1910 Move to Somerville, New Jersey to Saint Thomas African Methodist Episcopal church
  • 1918 Death and burial


  1. ^ a b "Historic Princetonians". Historical Society of Princeton. Retrieved 2008-04-21. "William Drew Robeson was father of performer and activist Paul Robeson. In 1860, at age fifteen, the enslaved Drew Robeson made his escape to Pennsylvania from North Carolina to serve as a laborer for the Union Army. Robeson went on to receive an A.B. in 1873 and a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree in 1876 from Lincoln University. In Princeton, he served as pastor from 1880-1901 at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church." 
  2. ^ "Preacher’s son brought area a brush with film, song.". Citizen Voice. Retrieved 2008-04-21. "William Drew Robeson served as pastor at the Church of the Covenant from 1878 to 1880 before moving to Princeton, New Jersey, where he preached at the famed Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church ..." 
  3. ^ Moss, Emerson I. (1992). African-Americans in the Wyoming Valley. ISBN 0937537020. 
  4. ^ "His Father's Voice". New York Times. April 8, 2001. Retrieved 2008-04-21. "William Drew Robeson, a former slave who had become a clergyman, and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, who died in a fire when Paul was 6." 
  5. ^ a b "Profile". National Public Radio. May 8, 1999. "In 1860, when he was 15, William Drew Robeson escaped slavery in North Carolina. ..." 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Robeson II, Paul (2001) (PDF). The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939. Wiley. p. 3. ISBN 0-471-24265-9. Retrieved 2008-12-27. 
  7. ^ "World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 (William Drew Robeson, Jr.) [database on-line"]. United States: The Generations Network. 1918. Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  8. ^ a b "World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 (Benjamin C. Robeson) [database on-line"]. United States: The Generations Network. 1942. Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  9. ^ "Social Security Death Index (Marian Forsythe) [database on-line"]. United States: The Generations Network. Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  10. ^ 1880 US Census for Princeton, New Jersey
  11. ^ 1900 US Census for Princeton, New Jersey
  12. ^ a b "Paul Robeson". Bay Area Robeson. Retrieved 2007-02-14. "Paul Robeson's father, William Drew Robeson, was born into slavery on the Robeson plantation in Cross Road Township, Martin County, North Carolina. In 1860, at fifteen years of age, William Drew made his escape, found his way north across the Maryland border through Pennsylvania, and served in the Union Army as a laborer (making at least two very dangerous journeys back to North Carolina to see his mother Sabra). ... Louisa, in ill health and nearly blind, was set alight when a coal from the stove fell on her long dress and she failed to notice. Mortally burned, she died several days later." 
  13. ^ Duberman, Martin,Paul Robeson 1989.pgs6-7Boyhood

External links


Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

William Drew Robeson I
Princeton Press, Saturday December 29, 1883

Rachel Stryker, an aged colored woman, well and favorably known in town, met with a serious and tragic accident, on Friday of last week, which has resulted in her death from mortification of the broken limb, on Sunday morning. She had gone out to Lawrenceville, to the house of Mr. Lewis Hendrickson, to work there for the winter. It appears that in an outer kitchen, there was a well covered over by the floor. While, with two others, by a table, engaged in chopping meat, without the slightest warning, the floor suddenly broke under her, and she fell through in an instant, near forty feet down the well. There was a cucumber pump therein, and she was stayed by its braces from being drowned. There being no men about at the time, it was nearly an hour before she could be rescued. She had been in the water to the depth of three feet all this time. When taken out it was found that one of her legs was badly broken near the ankle. She was a woman of nearly 200 lb (91 kg) weight. The unusual weight and the jarring motion caused the floor, which was a comparatively new one, but had become, unknown to any one, rotten, to give way. Everything was done to minister to her relief medically; and Dr. Gosman and Rev. Mr. Robeson went to minister otherwise. She was buried in town on Monday afternoon.

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