Paul Robeson: scholar, athlete, singer, orator.
Trenton's Neadom Roberts (left) and fellow war hero Henry Johnson pose for a picture taken by James VanDerZee, the premier photographer of the Harlem Renaissance.
|In the war year of 1918, when African-Americans were being lynched down South and relegated to ghettoes up North, two black men from Mercer County emerged as national celebrities.
One of them, Army private Neadom Roberts of Trenton, became the first American -- black or white -- to win France's highest medal of military valor in World War I after an amazing exploit in which he and a buddy routed 20 Germans by themselves.
The other, Princeton native Paul Robeson, entered his college senior year as an All-American in football, a star in three other sports and the brightest academic star Rutgers University had ever seen.
Their success only added to the growing opportunity and self-respect that blacks saw in the bustling war years, despite all the discrimination they had to endure.
It was a time when W. E. B. DuBois issued a stirring call for civil rights in the NAACP journal, The Crisis.
"Make way for democracy!" he wrote. "We saved it in France, and by the great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States."
But for many of these veterans -- and for the two achievers, Roberts and Robeson -- the promise of postwar America would evaporate into bitter
Roberts grew up at 249 Church St. in a Trenton that was, essentially, a Jim Crow town -- the capital of a state that some regarded as a northern outpost of the old Confederacy.
He went to the old Lincoln Elementary School, a blacks-only building on Bellevue Avenue with leaky water pipes and drafty windows. If he wanted to see a movie or ride a streetcar, he had to sit in the "colored" section.
A quiet, modest teen, Roberts left school early and worked as a teen-aged bellboy at the Hotel
Windsor -- little dreaming of the world upheaval that would change his life.
In 1917, America declared war on Germany and the nation called its able-bodied young men into the service. What to do with black men of draft age became a burning question.
President Woodrow Wilson was ambivalent on the race question. But when it came to manpower, he needed all the bodies he could get, whatever color -- so he gave the order to conscript black as well as white.
Black volunteers came from all over the nation, eager to prove their patriotism or just have an adventure in Europe.
"World War I was really the first major opportunity since the Civil War when blacks could demonstrate their patriotism and show they had as much stake in this country as anyone," said Trenton schoolteacher Jack Washington, who has written about Roberts and local history in his book, "The Quest for Equality."
Roberts, 17 years old, enlisted in New York City and joined the 15th New York National Guard,
afterward renamed the 369th Infantry.
Soldiers of the 369th had to endure petty indignities from the day they signed up. Shipped off to a base in South Carolina, they were given only summer clothes to wear in winter, denied facilities for bathing and refused service in restaurants when they went on leave.
Other "colored" regiments got no better treatment up north. At Camp Dix, now Fort Dix, some whites nearly started a race riot when they slapped a sign over their barracks that read: "No nigger soldiers allowed."
Army brass thought blacks were deficient in courage and intelligence, fit only for manual labor as stevedores and truck drivers. "The poorer class of backwoods Negro has not the mental stamina and moral sturdiness to put him in the line regiment opposing German troops," an Army report said.
But the 369th, arriving in France in December 1917, had a chance to distinguish itself.
France needed reinforcements in a weakly defended sector of the Argonne Forest, and Gen. John J. Pershing delivered his black troops.
The night of May 14, 1918, Private Roberts teamed with Sgt. Henry Johnson of Albany, N.Y. for guard duty in the forward lines, a creepy tangle of thick brush pockmarked with shell holes.
Shortly before dawn, a raiding party of 20 Germans swooped upon them, guns blazing. Roberts fell wounded and unconscious, his side torn open by a bayonet, his fingers ripped by bullets. Johnson, out of ammo, fell wounded too.
Seemingly triumphant, the spike-helmeted attackers began dragging Roberts to their lines
as a prisoner. But Johnson got back up grasping a bolo knife -- a razor-sharp weapon as heavy
as a butcher's meat cleaver -- and stabbed two of the enemy to death.
Roberts, freed, fought back too, shooting until his rifle jammed and then lobbing grenades.
When the smoke had cleared, Roberts and Johnson had held their ground, accounted for at
least four enemy dead, and played a role in rolling back the Germans on the Western Front.
For their deed, the heroic duo were presented France's Croix de Guerre.
"Good and brave soldier," said a French general in giving Roberts his medal.
While Roberts was showing bravery abroad, Robeson was nearing the end of his remarkable college studies.
Born at 72 Witherspoon St., Princeton, Robeson spent his earliest years in a university town that he would later call "for all intents and purposes ... a southern plantation."
But Robeson's father was a proud Presbyterian minister, a man who had been born a slave
and escaped to freedom, and taught his son that the black man "was in every way the equal
of the white man."
When young Paul's mother died in a house
fire in 1904, the family relocated to Somerville. Robeson did so well in high school there that he
won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College in New Brunswick.
At the time, Rutgers was not the sprawling university of today, but a small state college
of 500 students, and Robeson stood out as the only black student.
A strapping 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, he tried out for the football team upon entering college in 1915. One player broke his nose. Another knocked the him down, stomped a cleated
shoe on his right hand and tore off all the fingernails.
Robeson stayed in practice, and on the
next scrimmage lifted the offender clean off the ground and held him over his head.
"Robey, you're on the varsity!" shouted
Robeson's toughness and spirited play eventually won him respect from teammates and
adulation from fans. By the end of his freshman year, he was a starter. By his junior year, in
1917, he was named to the All-American team as an end and tackle.
Sportswriters patronized him with nicknames like "the big darky" and "the dusky marvel." But they still praised him.
Robeson showed that he was a star in more than football. He played baseball and basketball
and tossed the javelin.
In 1918 alone, he won his third straight
debating title, earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and was hailed by his classmates as "the leader of the
colored race in America."
Valedictorian of the class, Robeson graduated in 1919 with praise for the troops then fighting in Europe. "Join with us in continuing to fight for the great principles for which they contended, until in all sections of this fair land there will be equal opportunities for all," he said in his valedictory.
Robeson's fame grew even greater after college as a singer of black spirituals, a movie actor
and political activist.
But the more he saw of the world, the more he grew to despise American racism and speak his mind. He embraced Soviet communism, became a target of the American government's wrath in the Cold War years and had his passport revoked.
He died in 1976, celebrated as a civil
rights pioneer by some, reviled as disloyal by others.
The other hero of 1918, Trenton's Neadom Roberts, came home raised to the rank of
sergeant on Nov. 6, the week before Armistice Day. Trenton welcomed him back with a
parade down Clinton Avenue and a mayor's reception.
He got married and had a child, Juanita, in 1919. That child is now Juanita Hedgepeth, 79, who lives in Bernice Munce Tower and still remembers how her father toured the country, lecturing audiences on his thrilling adventures.
"He was a busybody," Hedgepeth said. "He had an artificial elbow and a hole in his side, but he kept at it and I always thought of him as a great man."
Just 19, Roberts seemed to have a promising life ahead. But Trenton was still Trenton -- a segregated town with few opportunites for a black man.
In 1924, Roberts was thrown into federal prison for wearing his Army uniform, a no-no for ex-
servicemen. In 1928, he was arrested again for sexual abuse.
He tried to turn his life around, marrying and moving to Newark to work as a messenger for a
radio station. But he was arrested a third time, this time for molesting an 8-year-old girl.
On April 18, 1949, the day he was to be arraigned on the molestation charge, Neadom
Roberts was found hanged in his home. His body dangled from a basement rafter beside his wife,
Iola, also hanged. She had left a note.
"Neadom and I are going together," it said. "It is best that way. He is innocent of any charge against him."
A posthumous campaign to award Roberts and Johnson the Medal of Honor has never been
|1918: They fought racism on two fronts|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|