This unassuming West Philadelphia row house was the home of Paul Robeson, an artist and activist who gained fame in the mid-20th century, but was blacklisted because of his political beliefs.
The son of a former slave, Robeson was born in 1898 and grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. He earned a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he was valedictorian of his graduating class. Over the course of his career, Robeson was an actor, professional athlete, concert singer, activist, speaker, linguist, attorney, author, humanitarian, and scholar. He spoke fifteen languages, and was the first African-American actor to play the lead in a major theater production—his turn in Othello holds the record for the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history with nearly 300 performances.
Robeson spoke out against racism and facism, which earned him both admirers and enemies. In the 1940s and 50s, conservatives made attempts to silence and discredit Robeson, which took a toll on his health. In the 1960s, Robeson stepped out of the public eye.
He spent the last 10 years of his life in this house, which was owned by his sister Marian Forsythe. He would host recitations and concerts for family and friends and wave to neighbors, but he rarely left. Toward the end of his life, he stayed in his bed. Robeson died in 1976, and his sister the following year. In 1994, the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance purchased the house and turned it into a museum celebrating Robeson’s life.
The house had lain vacant for more than a dozen years, and required major restoration, which was completed in 2015. The museum features exhibits about Robeson and offers space for art shows, community meetings, and other events. In 1991, it was declared a historical landmark by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Know Before You Go
The Paul Robeson House & Museum is open from Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Private and group tours are available by appointment. Nearby the house at 45th and Chestnut Streets, is a mural of Robeson that faces a high school bearing his name.