March 3, 2015

Meet Frances Aulston, the Woman Behind Philly's Paul Robeson House

Scholar, athlete, singer, actor, civil rights activist. Paul Robeson, born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898, was a man who played many roles throughout his long life, gaining fame and recognition for his deep baritone voice and passionate acting in film and on stage. As a young man, he was only the third Black student ever admitted to Rutgers University, earning a full academic scholarship and All-American recognition for his prowess on the football field. Later, his stage roles included Othello, both on Broadway and in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, and he starred in films like “The Emperor Jones,” “Proud Valley” and “Jericho.”

Robeson's strong support of anti-lynching legislation and stance against McCarthyism, as well as his affiliation with Communism, got him blacklisted in the 1950s. His career stalled after his passport was revoked and he could no longer travel abroad, and he spent the last decade of his life living with his sister and her husband in a modest house in West Philadelphia. He passed away in 1976, at the age of 77.

Thanks to the work of one woman, that house is now a vibrant community arts center. Frances Aulston has been working with the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which owns and operates the house, since 1984. In recognition of her decades of service to the community and work with the Paul Robeson House, Aulston was honored by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. I spoke with her about her passion for Paul Robeson's house and legacy, and the neighborhood that he called home.

How did you become involved with the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance?

I was working as a library assistant for the Free Library of Philadelphia in ’84. We had our first black mayor, who had a mandate to assess the cultural needs of the community. He appointed the first deputy director of arts and culture, Oliver Franklin, and he facilitated a hearing where people in the community were invited to express their issues.

Paul Robeson spent the last decade of his life in this West Philadelphia house after retiring from his show business career.

I was supported by the Free Library’s administration to do community outreach and bring in artists so we could support them in an advocacy way and bring programs to the community of cultural interest, and also improve the visibility of established cultural arts education and recreational institutions. It was sort of the Reaganomics era, so funding was at its lowest, and this was an opportunity for me to support that cause without looking for extra funds because I was already employed by the library.

The Paul Robeson house was not taken under our wing until ’94. The cultural alliance was established in 1984, and ten years later we discovered the Paul Robeson house was available, and his mission to support the arts as a tool for social change dovetailed with our mission. We conducted surveys, facilitated by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, to find out if the community and surrounding areas were interested in supporting historic sites such as the Paul Robeson House and using the arts as a tool for social change.

I understand that the initial funding for the house’s restoration came from a Save America’s Treasures grant. Can you tell me about that?

That initial funding was supported and initiated by Congressman Chakah Fattah, who also brought in Republican support through Senators [Arlen] Specter and [Rick] Santorum. It was a bipartisan piece that was initiated by him [Fattah] -- if it had not been for him, none of this would be a conversation. So, we’re very grateful for that, and we’re very grateful for the generosity of Santorum and Specter, who agreed to support it.

This has been our mission since the beginning—to make sure that the Paul Robeson house is bipartisan, and that we belong to the city, the state, the nation, the union, the world. We received the largest grant at that time that they had ever given anyone [$200,000], and that was a unanimous decision.

What kind of shape was the house in prior to its restoration?

The Paul Robeson house was a shell almost. It was left vacant for about 12 years before we got it. It was his sister Marion’s house, and she and her husband invited Paul Robeson to come live after Eslanda Goode, his wife, died in New York. Marion’s daughter Paulina had left the house to the estate of a broker, and that was who we purchased the house from.

The house was a complete shell; everything was gone. Squatters came in and lived in there. When they were forced to leave, they had taken everything that could be moved. The electrical wire had to be upgraded, plumbing had to be installed, a new roof had to be put on. We preserved the windows, restored each one of them. So from the ground up, the house had to be stabilized first to keep it from deteriorating more, and then the next step was to work towards the preservation.

Who oversaw the restoration?

I did, and the board of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

What kind of programming does the house offer to the community?

We support educational programs and public art and community engagement. We partner with over 80 institutions in the city and the University of Pennsylvania. We have teen writers’ creative workshops and Underground Railroad camps so that children can get a foundation and basic understanding of their roots. We have discussion forums where we discuss topical subjects and topics that have an impact on the community, and that’s entitled “Just The Facts.” We try to stay close to our mission to encourage an appreciation, understanding, and ultimately support for the arts, because the arts are such a centerpiece for everything that we do.

Can you talk a little bit about some of Paul Robeson’s contributions to the civil rights movement?

His work that he did in civil rights was epic. He pulled together marches around Washington to alert Truman and everyone else that it was time to look at lynchings—they should not be legal. He made all of this come to a great awareness to not only our country, but to the world, of what African Americans were suffering just in order to become citizens of good repute. So his focus on that, and his celebrity, supported the social causes that came about during the ‘60s that we are now reaping the benefits from.

Frances Aulston, president and CEO of the Paul Robeson House and the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, in front of the house’s fireplace.

Because of his work in the peace movement in the early 1900s, and expressing his distaste for us being involved in wars if we couldn’t take care of our problems at home, is what got him into an amount of trouble. But he had the courage of his convictions, and having the skills, talents, and gifts in the background of being a scholar as well as an athlete, he could appeal to many people.

I understand that you were recently recognized by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for your work. How does it feel to receive that recognition?

It’s excellent! It’s such an honor to know that how you have quietly gone about trying to preserve your site and also bring together the other African American sites collectively so that we're all on the same page is being recognized. I think [Representative Acosta, who introduced the bill] recognized that long-term sacrifice and I guess you could say long-term career almost, even though I didn’t set about making it a career.

It’s important to know that Paul Robeson was an extraordinary person who lived in an ordinary neighborhood, and that alone, people can relate to. He had other celebrities and people of renown come to this house in the center of Walnut Hill, in West Philadelphia to sit on his porch and talk to him while he rocked in his rocking chair and mentored to them. Nancy Wilson, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, you name it. Each time we hear them in public, they have not forgotten the Robeson legacy and what it meant to them as individuals and how it helped to support their careers.

What are you hoping to accomplish in the future, either with the WPCA or the Robeson House?

I hope to accomplish stronger partnerships with educational institutions across the board to help educate our children and our families on the importance of preserving our legacy and understanding our culture and our roots. I would also like to see state-of-the-art building here, as well as at the other 420 African American historic preservation sites [in Philadelphia]. I would like them all to be state-of-the-art sites that are shepherded by leaders that can help support the compelling stories and also create stabilization for generations yet to come.

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Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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