The Forest Park Public Library was gifted a unique and extensive collection of items related to Paul Robeson, the Black activist who was also an artist, performer, lawyer and football player.
The collection was assembled by Forest Park resident Mark Rogovin, who died in 2019. It was donated to the library by Michelle Melin-Rogovin, his widow. It includes Robeson’s artwork, educational materials, posters, music and papers.
Mark Rogovin was an avid historian and began to collect items related to Robeson in part because he was involved in a successful campaign to get Robeson’s face on a postage stamp in honor of his 100th birthday in 1998.
Robeson, who was born in 1898, led what can only be described as a fascinating life, involved in theater, singing, sports and politics. He became famous equally for his contributions to culture as for his political activism.
He was educated at Rutgers College, where he won an academic scholarship and was twice named All-American in football. He was the class valedictorian. At Columbia University Law School, he participated in off-campus productions and was an influential part of the Harlem Renaissance.
He became active in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in a number of social justice initiatives. During the McCarthy era, his outspoken support for the Soviet Union and communism led to him being blacklisted.
He died in January 1976.
Forest Park Against Racism co-founder Marjorie Adams, who attended the small ceremony on Sept. 4 during which the collection was donated to the library, spoke about what Robeson represents to many people.
“One of the things that Paul Robeson exemplified was the whole idea that you can do anything and reinvent yourself and change your mind and grow. He wasn’t afraid, he was curious,” said Adams. “I think that part of fighting against racism is to have a level of curiosity and make a decision to stay open and learn about other people. I think Paul Robeson exemplified that, and what I have learned about Mark [Rogovin], he also exemplified that with a lot of humor. If we are going to move forward, we are going to need humor, be courageous and have those challenging conversations – and know that we will come out on the other side as better people.”
Melin-Rogovin said she donated the collection to the library in her late husband’s memory because one thing he stood for and fought for was equality.
“I am giving this gift to celebrate the memory of my husband Mark Rogovin, a 33-year resident of Forest Park, who was dedicated to a world of equity and freedom for all people, and to honor the work of Forest Park Against Racism, who are continuing the work that he started,” Melin-Rogovin said.
A portrait of Robeson was given to the library, where it graces the commons on the main level. The rest of the collection is being archived by Dominican University library students and, once complete, will be available virtually and in-person at the Forest Park Public Library.
Library Director Pilar Shaker thanked Melin-Rogovin for the donation and spoke about what the collection means to the library.
“We are so happy to be able to house this truly unique collection. We accept this donation in partnership with Forest Park Against Racism with whom we share and support a message of anti-racism,” Shaker said.