Historic Preservation

Posted December 21, 2021

Studio Works on Preservation Plan for Paul Robeson House

One of the Fall 2021 second-year studios focused on the house museum in West Philadelphia

Students in Professor Pamela Hawkes’ studio worked on a Preservation Plan for the Paul Robeson House and Museum, located at 4951 Walnut Street in West Philadelphia. The twin rowhouses at 4951 and 4949 Walnut Street are significant in their historical connection to Paul Robeson and the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Paul Robeson, the larger-than-life baritone, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist spent his last years living with his sister Marian Forsythe in her home at 4951 Walnut Street. As the only one of Robeson's residences that is open to the public, 4951 Walnut Street provides a unique look into the life of this influential figure. Paul Leroy Robeson was one of the most important men in the twentieth century for his achievements in both the arts and activism for civil rights.  Robeson’s accomplishments throughout his life were exceptional. From sports, to law, to acting and singing, and ultimately to activism, he left a thundering legacy.

Frances P. Aulston, an educator and cultural historian, founded the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (WPCA) in 1984. Robeson’s philosophy to use the arts for social change resonated with Aulston and the WPCA’s mission and in 1994, the WPCA purchased 4951 Walnut Street.  One year later the WPCA acquired the other half of the twin, 4949 Walnut Street, and rehabilitated the pair for use in interpretation and community programming inspired by Robeson’s spirit. The WPCA seeks to capture Robeson’s spirit and his life’s work by making the rowhouses a place where art and activism come together to inspire the community. The Paul Robeson House is not simply a house museum, but a safe place for Black voices to be heard and make change

The WPCA and the Paul Robeson House and Museum has been solely volunteer run by passionate and dedicated community members since their inception in 1984. Vernoca Michael, a board member and longtime family friend and neighbor to Paul and Marian, has played a pivotal role in stewarding the organization following Frances Aulston’s passing in 2015. In June 2021, the WPCA hired their first paid Executive Director, Janice Sykes-Ross, through a grant provided by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. With Sykes-Ross on board for two years, the WPCA seeks to strengthen the management and financial well-being of the organization for years to come. The West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Paul Robeson House and Museum continue to move forward in their quest to ensure that Robeson’s legacy lives on through a commitment to the community through arts and activism. In reference to Robeson, they state it eloquently: “He persists in our memory as a successful scholar, athlete, performer and activist.”