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Sat, 07.27.1844

William Robeson, Minister, and Abolitionist born

William D. Robeson

*William Robeson was born on this date in 1844. He was a minister, and abolitionist.

William Drew Robeson was born a slave, his father was Benjamin Robeson, and his mother was named Sabra. They were enslaved on the Roberson plantation near Cross Road township in Martin County, North Carolina. He was a descendant of the Igbo people of Nigeria.

In 1860, when he was 15 years old, Robeson escaped slavery with his brother Ezekiel through the Underground Railroad, and they made their way to Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania. During the American Civil War, he served in the Union Army as a laborer.

Afterward, Robeson studied at Lincoln College (now a university), where he earned an A.B. in 1873 and a Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1876. While a student at Lincoln University he met Maria Louisa Bustill, and they married in 1878. They had seven children: Gertrude (who died young), William Drew Jr., called "Bill"; John Bunyan Reeve called "Reed"; Benjamin; Marian; and Paul LeRoy Robeson, the youngest. Another child died at birth, but the name is not known.

He became the pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey from 1879 to 1901. Robeson was ousted as minister by his church after 20 years of service. He was said to have aligned himself "on the wrong side of a church fight," having refused to bow to pressure from the "white residents of Princeton" that he ceases 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."  

In 1904 Louisa died in Princeton. Her clothes had caught fire from a coal-burning stove in a kitchen accident. He moved to Westfield, New Jersey to be the pastor of the Downer Street Saint Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church from 1907 to 1910. He led the congregation through the construction of their church, completed in 1908. The younger children attended the Washington School at Elm and Orchard streets. 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 house was taken down. 

In 1910 he moved to Somerville, New Jersey, where he led the congregation at the Saint Thomas African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. William Robeson died on May 17, 1918. He was buried in Princeton Cemetery next to his wife.

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