In honor of Albert Einstein’s birthday March 14 (also known as Pi Day) let us remember his strong commitment to racial justice for African Americans, including his friendship with Paul Robeson with whom he advocated for anti-lynching laws. As well he was a friendly presence in our traditionally African American Witherspoon Jackson historical district. Here are some facts about his activism:
1. Shortly before moving to America, Einstein backed a campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine Alabama teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in 1931.
2. When Princeton’s Nassau Inn refused to rent a room to contralto opera star Marian Anderson because of her skin color, Einstein invited the singer home as his guest. Their friendship lasted from 1937 until his death in 1955, and Anderson stayed with the Einsteins whenever she visited Princeton.
3. In 1946, Einstein gave a rare speech at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a historically black university, where he also accepted an honorary degree. The appearance was significant because Einstein made a habit of turning down all requests to speak at universities. During his speech, he called racism “a disease of white people.” (Another link which describes this speech.) https://blavity.com/this-is-what-went-down-when-albert-einstein-visited-hbcu-lincoln-university-in-1946?category1=black-history&subCat=news
4. Einstein was a friend and supporter of African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson, who was blacklisted because of his civil rights work. The pair worked together in 1946 on an anti-lynching petition campaign. In 1952, when Robeson’s career had bottomed out because of the blacklisting, Einstein invited Robeson to Princeton as a rebuke to the performer’s public castigation.
5. For decades, Einstein offered public encouragement to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its founder, W. E. B. Du Bois. And in 1951, when the federal government indicted the 83-year-old Du Bois as a “foreign agent,” Einstein offered to appear as a character witness during the trial. The potential publicity convinced the judge to drop the case.
6. In January 1946, Einstein published an essay, “The Negro Question,” in Pageant magazine in which he called racism America’s “worst disease.” Here is an excerpt from that essay. “There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out…Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.”
In her book, I Hear My People Singing, Kathryn Watterson quotes residents in describing their recollections of his presence and friendship as does Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor in their book Einstein on Race and Racism. As reported in the Town Topics:
“…, Albert Einstein was for all purposes an honorary resident of the neighborhood, even though he lived on the other side of Nassau Street. The affectionate rapport the renowned scientist enjoyed with the black townspeople has also been documented in Einstein On Race and Racism (Rutgers Univ. Press 2005). Besides insights into the relationship between Einstein and Paul Robeson, I Hear My People Singing contains anecdotes like Shirley Satterfield’s (“I loved his uncombed shock of white hair, his baggy sweaters”); her mother Alice Satterfield (1922-2010), who worked in the kitchen at the Institute for Advanced Study, recalls in Einstein On Race and Racism, “We didn’t talk a lot — on a couple of occasions he held my hand without saying anything. He would just walk in a silent and wonderful way in which you knew everything would be all right …. You felt good walking with him.”
The information in this post was compiled by Not in Our Town board member Wilma Solomon.