Robeson House awarded $135K grant to hire director

Paul Robeson House and Museum

The Paul Robeson House and Museum was awarded a $135,000 grant to help cover the salary of its first full-time director and the costs of searching for that person. (Courtesy of the Paul Robeson House and Museum)

This story originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.

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The Paul Robeson House and Museum is looking for its first full-time director, thanks to a recent grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

The West Philadelphia institution will receive a $135,000 grant to help cover the new director’s salary and the costs of searching for the new full-time director.

Acting Executive Director Vernoca Michael said grants like this are vital to the well-being of small nonprofits.

“This kind of grant can make all the difference in the world. I have led a number of nonprofit organizations and also for-profit organizations, but we need a paid professional,” she said.

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the largest grant-giving organization in the country dedicated to the preservation of African American historic sites, awarded a total of $1.7 million to 27 historical sites and organizations across the country.

“The Paul Robeson House and Museum is a site of exceptional significance and contributes to the economic and cultural vitality and health of Philadelphia,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the fund. “We want to uplift this history and empower this organization to increase their reach, relevancy and impact.”

Paul Robeson was an actor who starred in such films as “The Emperor Jones,” “Show Boat,” “Song of Freedom,” “The Proud Valley” and “Dark Sands.” He was also a singer who recorded 276 songs from a variety of genres.

Robeson, who founded the American Crusade Against Lynching and was an active member of the Civil Rights Congress and the Council on African Affairs, became as well known for his political activism as he was for his cultural accomplishments.

He spent the final years of his life living in West Philadelphia with his sister, Marian R. Forsythe.

The Paul Robeson House and Museum hosts tours, art shows, organizational meetings, cultural events and many other activities. The Robeson House is also the home of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, whose mission includes cultivating interest and support for the arts in West Philadelphia.

The Robeson House initially applied for funds to update some of the museum’s equipment, but changed its proposal after consultation with staff at the fund.

“Even before the pandemic, we wanted to improve our technology,” Michael said. “The Action Fund suggested that we think of a more long-term strategy. They suggested we seek an executive director, so we did.”

Previous directors have worked part-time as volunteers. The money made through programming and events goes toward covering the museum’s daily operating costs.

The Robeson House went through a seven-month vetting process, during which it was evaluated by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Hutchins Center of Harvard University and the Association of African American Museums.

The Robeson House found out last week that it had won the grant money.

The total cost of hiring a full-time director is $170,000. The museum is looking to cover the $35,000 gap through fundraising and digital programming.

Michael said the search committee has a firm idea of what they are looking for in a candidate.

She said: “We need a younger professional who comes with talents related to not only organizational skills but also has a good financial background. We need a person who has the ability to come in and learn about Paul Robeson and what he did to give leadership to our docents. We need a person who can go out in the community and represent us, as well.”

The current socio-political climate mirrors many of the struggles Robeson faced, Michael said, so now is the perfect time to find someone who embodies what Robeson stood for.

“This organization needs the millennials and those really out there protesting right now, these are the ones that we need to go after. We need a young aggressive executive to take us to the next level,” Michael said.

“As our generation gets older, you have to have new generations begin to take your place. This is why the Paul Robeson House will need new aggressive leadership in these days and times and it’s even more important in terms of looking at what’s happening in America, and dealing with the issues of racism, sexism, and all of the other issues that we’re faced with today.”
jperry@phillytrib.com 215-893-5749



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