William Drew Robeson I

William Drew Robeson I

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. [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Preacher’s son brought area a brush with film, song. |url=http://www.citizensvoice.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=16156554&BRD=2259&PAG=461&dept_id=455154&rfi=6 |quote=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 ... |publisher=Citizen Voice |date= |accessdate=2008-04-21 ] [cite book |last=Moss |first=Emerson I.|authorlink= |coauthors= |title=African-Americans in the Wyoming Valley |year=1992 |publisher= |quote= | url=http://books.google.com/books?id=My90AAAACAAJ&dq |isbn=0937537020 ]

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.cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=His Father's Voice |url=http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/04/08/reviews/010408.08nasawt.html?_r=1&oref=slogin |quote=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. |publisher=New York Times |date=April 8, 2001 |accessdate=2008-04-21 ] cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Profile |url= |quote= In 1860, when he was 15, William Drew Robeson escaped slavery in North Carolina. ... |publisher=National Public Radio |date=May 8, 1999 |accessdate=2008-04-21 ] Cross Road Township is near Raleigh, North Carolina. He was a descendant of the Igbo people.cite book |last=Robeson II |first=Paul |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939 |year= |publisher= |url=http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/59/04712426/0471242659.pdf |isbn= ] In 1860, when he was 15 years old, William escaped on the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia. 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.cite book |last=Robeson II |first=Paul |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939 |year= |publisher= |url=http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/59/04712426/0471242659.pdf |isbn= ] cite web |url=http://www.princetonhistory.org/historic_people.cfm |title=Historic Princetonians |accessdate=2008-04-21 |quote=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. |publisher=Historical Society of Princeton ]


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 II (1881-?) who was born in November 1881, and was a physician in Washington, D.C.; Benjamin Congleton Robeson (1894-1966) who was born in September 1894, and was a military chaplain in World War I, married Frances Elizabeth Cline, and later was a reverend at the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Harlem; 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 (1894-1977) who was born on December 1, 1894, and she married Dr. William Forsythe and moved to Philadelphia; and Paul LeRoy Robeson (1898-1976) who was an orator, singer and actor. Another child died at birth, but the name is not known. [1880 US Census for Princeton, New Jersey] [1900 US Census for Princeton, New Jersey]

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.cite web |url=http://www.bayarearobeson.org/RobesonInDepth.htm |title=Paul Robeson |accessdate=2007-02-14 |quote=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. |publisher=Bay Area Robeson ]

Princeton to Westfield

William was minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey from 1880 until 1901. In 1901 his congregation dismissed him, and 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.

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.

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


External links

* [http://www.bayarearobeson.org Robeson Family Biography]
* [http://www.princeton.lib.nj.us/robeson/ancestry.html Robeson Genealogy]
* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=robeson&GSfn=william&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSob=n&GRid=7957202&pt=William%20Drew%20Robeson& Findagrave: William Robeson]

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