Paul Robeson, world-famous civil rights activist, singer and actor, will soon be honored on U Street NW, the historical hub of D.C. African-American art scene, which is now more known as a trendy neighborhood with expensive bars and apartments.
ART B.L.O.C — the D.C. art collective behind more than 100 public and private murals in the city — received a $50,000 city grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to paint a large tribute honoring Robeson in the 1300 block of U Street NW.
Robeson (1898-1976) was an athlete, singer, actor, Broadway star and a notable leader in the early part of the Civil Rights movement. He traveled to the Soviet Union to perform and opposed the Cold War, leading many to associate him with communism and blacklist him.
“I think we have grown enough now to know that his blacklisting was wrong and that it’s time for us to really recognize this very key figure in American culture who paved the way for the Civil Rights movement and spread the idea of equality through society,” said Cory L. Stowers, the founder of ART B.L.O.C — which stands for Building Longevity for Our Community — and the lead artist on the Robeson mural.
The mural, “Living Timeline: Paul Robeson,” will cover the side of the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute, a martial arts academy building at 1351 U St. NW. Abdur-Rahim Muhammed, the president of the academy, approached Stowers about painting a mural of the artist.
The two-story mural will feature two large portraits of Robeson. In between those portraits, there will be smaller depictions of him at different stages of his life. The quote, “I make no distinction between my work as an artist and my life as a human being,” will be featured prominently and attributed to Robeson.
Different from the other city murals, this one will have an interactive component.
Visitors can scan a photo of the mural into an app on their phone, gaining access to Robeson’s music and information about him. The app will tell the stories of the different stages of Robeson’s life depicted in the mural.
During last weekend’s Funk Parade, the collective also painted a temporary mural of poet and D.C. resident Paul Laurence Dunbar in the 1500 block of U Street NW. That space eventually will be repainted into a more permanent tribute to the old Dunbar Hotel called “Meet Me at the Dunbar.”
Stowers has not yet started painting the Robeson mural. He said the mural will take two weeks to complete and he hopes it will be finished by early June.