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PRINCETON, NJ — The sandal, encrusted with a fine layer of grit, looks like it’s made of stone. A tin of Beecham’s Pills from St. Helen’s, Lancashire, England, “Sold by the Proprietor” with the paper wrapping intact, is so old, the price — 25 cents — is not stamped on, but integrated into the label design.
These and other artifacts were unearthed in the Princeton, NJ house where Paul Robeson was born. Shot against a stark black backdrop by photographer Wendel White, they are being projected against the façade of the house, across the street from the Arts Council of Princeton, from dusk to 9 pm, through November 30, as part of the exhibition Reconstructed History.
White is the fall 2017 artist in residence at the Arts Council, and the photographs have been made in the style of his Manifest project, a portfolio of images of objects from African-American material culture: diaries, slave collars, human hair, a drum, and quotidian representations of ordinary life. These items “seek out the ghosts and resonant memories expressed in various aspects of the material world,” says White, who is a professor of art at Richard Stockton College. White is known for his landscapes of African-American cultural history, including a series of portraits of black towns in southern New Jersey.
Some of White’s images projected on the Robeson house also appear as large-format prints inside the Arts Council building, as well as images from his Schools for the Colored Series, in which he uses medium format film to capture images of buildings or locations that were designated as such. He creates a digital mask indicating where the former building once stood in contrast to what stands there today.
The spirit of Paul Robeson greets visitors to the Arts Council’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts in the form of a bronze bust permanently mounted at the entrance on Paul Robeson Place. Reconstructed History curator Amy Brummer had the idea of “layering history and bringing it to a different plane of existence, while raising awareness of the objects inside the Robeson house and the importance of its renovation,” she says. She continues: “I also wanted to offer a glimpse into the house’s legacy as a residence for African-Americans. These objects tell stories about ordinary people’s lives that are part of a broader history.”
In their initial meeting to discuss the project, Brummer and White were given a tour of the Robeson house, just after it had been gutted for renovation. That was when White was struck by the proximity of the Robeson house to the Arts Council, and he got the idea to project images from his Manifest project on the walls of the house where they could interact with its history. On a recent evening, headlights of oncoming cars played with the light of the projected images, adding another layer by casting shadows of mature trees that had witnessed the neighborhood’s growth.
These objects seemingly demanded to have their stories told when a piece of paper fluttered from the ceiling. “It was as if someone were reaching out” from beyond the grave, says Kevin Wilkes of Princeton Design Guild, who volunteers his architectural services on the restoration of the Robeson house. The artifacts — basic items of everyday life, such as matchbook covers, thimbles, combs — are like “piece[s] of the past speaking to us and, at a time when the nation is reeling with issues of racism, a frank reminder of Princeton’s past.”
Facing a beautifully landscaped cemetery where many notables are buried — among them Silvia Beach, John O’Hara, Aaron Burr Jr., Grover Cleveland, Michael Graves (who designed the Arts Council’s building) and Paul Robeson’s parents — the aluminum-clad, gabled house might go unnoticed were it not for the bronze plaque identifying it as the birth place of the actor, singer, and political activist. On the state and national historic registers, the 1,922-square-foot house is where Robeson (1898 –1976) was born. The house came with his father’s job. The Reverend William Robeson, who at 15 escaped enslavement on a North Carolina plantation, served as minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church a few doors down.
That fluttering piece of paper turns out to have been a trolley pass that had been issued to Robeson’s brother, Bill Jr., who commuted to high school in Trenton when Princeton High School was whites only.
After William Robeson was forced to resign from the congregation for advocating for racial equality, the church fell on hard times and sold the property. It remained in private hands, becoming a boarding house for day laborers. At one time there was a barbershop on the lower floor and a lounge where workers from Princeton University’s eating clubs would gather.
In 2005 the church bought the property back from a parishioner. The New Brunswick Presbytery, responsible for ousting William, publicly apologized and, as a gesture of recompense for what it termed “ecclesiastical lynching,” retired the mortgage.
The Robeson House Committee formed in 2007 with plans to restore the house as a center for the study of human rights and as a testament to the Robeson family. The church offers living space to those in need — for example, David Bryant, who served 38 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction, was given shelter when released. The restoration plans call for a public meeting room, gallery space for historic interpretation, offices for nonprofits and three short-term apartments. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was designated an historic district by the township in 2016, however; the Robeson house is awaiting historic preservation approvals, and Wilkes estimates construction could take a year. His design includes a glass-enclosed porch that was salvaged from one of the neighborhood’s teardowns.
The building’s history, and the history of the Arts Council building – it once served as the “colored Y” (YMCA/YWCA) when Princeton’s “colored school” was around the corner, on Quarry Street – resonated with White’s series. Brummer arranged for the artifacts, in storage at Princeton Design Guild, to be delivered to White at Stockton where, he says, he preferred the institutional lighting to that in his own studio. Most of what he’s photographed for the Manifest series had been in institutional collections and he wanted the Robeson house items to be consistent with the series. “Stockton’s bank of fluorescent lighting gives the impression that these, too, are in institutional settings,” says White.
But unlike the institional objects, these had not been scrubbed clean. They were fragile, with the patina of hands that had held them. “They were covered with dust and debris from the construction site, almost as if they’d been excavated from an archaeological dig,” says White. He continues:
It was a great opportunity to photograph what had been touched by members of the Robeson family. I was interacting in a meaningful way with the lives of the people who had lived in that historic African-American community. This is at the heart of what I seek to do, to experience the object in the contemporary moment, making a direct connection to past lives.
He reinforces this experience by using a shallow depth of field, so the object appears to recede, like an apparition.
White’s images are accompanied by the work of Leslie Sheryll, whose archival digital prints are based on vintage tintypes she has collected over the decades and manipulated. In several of the images, white people in Victorian finery appear to melt away into anonymous black people. Harriet Tubman appears in the central image, and her dress and posture echo in others. Casey Ruble’s silver-pigmented, paper collage, “At Once the House Became a Sort of Shrine,” (2016) suggests the Robeson house, with its simple door and knob abutting a tile wall. Annie Hogan’s “Double Vision” (2012) also suggests the rich history of an old house whose wood is returning to the forest.
Many of the works in Reconstructed History have windows, offering a view into rooms from a painful past. In “Modern Catholic Kitchen” (1996-2016), Ann LePore starts with images from a Portapack film reel shot in her mother’s kitchen during her fatherless childhood, and reimagines it using contemporary techniques — stills from the video were output onto polaroid film, enlarged onto Kodaliths in a darkroom, burned to lithography plates, and hand printed onto Plexiglas encased in poplar. “Each step of this process was a labor-intensive and introspective ritual performed in order to make the private and personal into something public and secular,” she writes. The viewer must achieve the correct position in order for each image to register.
Looking into the windows of the Arts Council’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, White sees ghosts from its past. “From the earliest days of my Small Towns, Black Lives project, artifacts of black lives in America presented landscapes. In my images I isolate the building from the background with a veil.” He references the W.E.B. De Bois concept of the veil, from “The Souls of Black Folk,” as the way racial relations took place in America. De Bois writes that the veil prevents white people from seeing black people as Americans, and from treating them as fully human, and at the same time prevents black people from seeing themselves as they really are, outside of the negative vision created by racism.
“We’ve constructed the North as a kind of informal apartheid,” White says. He insists:
In many cases it leads to a formalized separation of the black community, a requirement that you live on your side of the street/tracks/park, and it’s a legacy we still live with today. These buildings are about that world that separates us. The black community built its own world in which to flourish.
Reconstructed History continues in the Taplin Gallery of the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts (102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, NJ) through November 25. The projections of the Manifest images will continue through November 30, and prints of the Manifest images will remain on view in the Robeson Center’s Solley Theater Lobby Gallery, through December.