YOU COULD TELL that the big, shambling man walking the streets of West Philadelphia had been a football player.
The slope of his shoulders, the athletic spring in his step even in his 60s. And that voice! It seemed that Paul Robeson could still belt out the kind of operatic aria that had enthralled music lovers around the world.
Although he was not in the best of health when he lived the last 10 years of his life in West Philadelphia, Paul Robeson enjoyed walking the neighborhood or sitting on the porch of the rowhouse at 4951 Walnut St. where he lived, greeting neighbors who may or may not have known that this big, friendly guy was an international celebrity.
Today that house is a museum dedicated to Robeson's life, thanks to the hard work and devotion of Frances P. Aulston.
Fran, who died Aug. 9 at the age of 75, was the founder and driving force behind the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which now has its headquarters next door to the Robeson house.
One of the alliance's major goals was preservation of the Robeson house, but it also joined with more than 80 cultural institutions to present a multitude of programming, including cultural, educational and political forums, workshops, trips and festivals, and community outreach.
"Fran's dedication and commitment to the legacy of Paul Robeson was unprecedented," said Shirley Jean Waites-Howard, teacher, social worker and longtime community activist who worked with Fran over the years.
"She used her personal savings to buy Paul Robeson's home and the building next door for an office," Waites-Howard said. "Fran was driven to make this facility a center for arts activities in Philadelphia. She collaborated with many cultural organizations. She was a phenomenal leader."
Fran's family said in a statement: "Tireless, dedicated and passionate, Fran dedicated her life to using art and culture to transform, enlighten, educate and create community."
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission declared the Robeson house a historical landmark in 1991. It also is listed as a national historical site in the National Register of Historic Places.
Fran founded the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance in 1984, and became its executive director.
An early mission of the alliance was to try to bring about community healing after the MOVE debacle in May 1985, when a police bomb destroyed the back-to-nature group's headquarters on Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek, killing 11 people, including five children, and wiping out a neighborhood in a firestorm.
The alliance brought together 50 cultural and educational institutions citywide to develop a weeklong festival of visual and performing arts to initiate public discussion and begin the healing process.
Fran Aulston was born in Richmond, Va., and moved to Philadelphia as a teen in the mid-'50s. She married Charles Aulston in 1959 and raised two sons.
She received a bachelor's degree in human services from Antioch College and a master's in library sciences from Drexel University.
She worked for the Free Library of Philadelphia, from which she retired.
Among her honors were the University of Pennsylvania Women of Color Award and House Resolution 90, sponsored by state Rep. Leslie Acosta, D-Phila, on Feb. 19, honoring her work and leadership.
Paul Robeson, who died Jan. 23, 1976, at the age of 77, had an international singing career and was an All-American football player at Rutgers University. He also played briefly for the National Football League's Milwaukee Badgers.
Fran is survived by two sons, Heru Bey and Glen Aulston; three brothers, William, Thomas and Frank Norfleet, and six grandchildren.
Services: 10 a.m. Saturday at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, 2251 N. 54th St. Friends may call at 7 p.m. Friday at the Ivan Kimble Funeral Home, 1100 N. 63rd St., and at 8 a.m. Saturday at the church.