Historic church's debt cancelled as an act of racial reconciliation

Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church free from mortgage

November 13, 2015

The Rev. William Robeson.

The Rev. William Robeson.


On Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, during the 175th anniversary event for the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Synod of the Northeast will clear the church’s debt of approximately $175,000 as an act of racial reconciliation.

The loan forgiveness is in response to the “ecclesiastical lynching” of the Rev. William Robeson in late 1900. William Robeson is the father of noted singer, actor and civil rights leader Paul Robeson.

The Rev. Dr. Harold Delhagen, Synod of the Northeast Leader, says, “As a regional community of over 1,100 Presbyterian churches committed to racial justice, this story has compelled us to do justice and not simply talk about it.”

Robeson, an African-American and former slave himself, became pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1879. The church was established after a fire destroyed the balcony of First Presbyterian Church (now named Nassau Presbyterian Church) where slaves sat during worship.

Outspoken in his efforts to end racism and Jim Crow laws in Princeton and beyond, he was deeply beloved by his congregation.

But as a result of his advocacy, white members of the presbytery forced Robeson out of his position at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church after 21 years of service. The church experienced a significant loss in funding and the ousting took a toll on Robeson’s career. The church’s manse, which had been purchased for $1,000, had to be sold due to the loss of finances.

Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church repurchased the manse in 2005 for $435,000. A balance of approximately $175,000 remains on the property’s two mortgages. Now called the Paul Robeson House, the space is a meeting place for people to study and advance human rights.

The Synod recently investigated the history surrounding this event and produced a report in September recommending the Presbytery of New Brunswick issue a formal apology. A letter of affirmation was sent to the Presbytery of New Brunswick for making amends for the injustice committed by the presbytery, and a resolution was drafted for issuing the apology. The Presbytery of New Brunswick is contributing $2,500 towards the restitution effort and is encouraging member churches to assist.

  1. Does anyone know if the church has apologized to Native Americans for the church's role in the residential schools?

    by Marsha Cutting

    November 16, 2015

  2. It is fantastic that we are moving toward reconciliation for the racism and violence of our Presbyterian history. Hopefully this will only be the beginning toward larger amounts of restitution toward groups we have mistreated in our history.

    by Brian Merritt

    November 15, 2015