Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson/Lib. of Congress
Paul Robeson/Lib. of Congress

Paul Robeson was a lawyer, writer, orator, musician, and linguist. He was born in 1898 and would go on to appear in 13 feature films, perform songs in concert over four decades, and act on Broadway. He earned All-American honors in football in college and played professional sports. He dedicated himself to being a spokesman for African-Americans.

Robeson was born the son of a minister in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898 and it was in his father's church he began to sing. His father only had an elementary education but he instilled in the young Robeson the thirst for knowledge. That thirst would pay dividends for Robeson as he earned a scholarship to Rutgers University.

At Rutgers Robeson excelled both physically and academically and in 1919 was the valedictorian of his class. In 1923 he graduated from Columbia Law School and joined a New York legal firm. He had acquired a passion for acting however and it would not be long before he would appear on stage in "All God's Chillun Got Wings." He received death threats but carried on and in fact had to learn two full plays at once.

Robeson's voice was so forceful the "Showboat" song "Ol' Man River" was written with him specifically in mind. He appeared in "Showboat" in London in 1928. It was in England he made his first appearance as Othello. Robeson would stay in Europe travelling across the huge continent and singing for appreciative audiences. In his spare time he managed to learn Russian, Chinese, French, and German.

In 1939 Robeson triumphantly returned to the states to play Othello on Broadway. But Robeson's outspokenness on protecting blacks from being lynched, segregation, and the labor movement would soon find him out of favor. At a meeting with President Truman in 1948, Robeson grew angry when Truman told him the time was not yet right to pursue anti-lynching legislation. Robeson responded that blacks then would have to defend themselves and before long newspapers(falsely) had Robeson calling for an armed black insurrection.

Because Robeson spoke Russian, admired Russian culture, had spent significant time in Russia and said American blacks would not go to war with Russia(because Russia's constitution outlawed racism) Hoover's FBI, and many Americans, was convinced Robeson was a communist. He never officially joined the Communist Party.

A violent riot broke out at a scheduled Robeson concert in New York in 1949. Not to be deterred, Robeson had the concert reschedule and local union members stood guard as Robeson sang. It was at this time Robeson joined up with folk singer Pete Seeger for many events.

In 1950 the U.S. State Department cancelled Robeson's passport for his outspokenness. This not only stopped Robeson's popular work in Europe it also made him a pariah in American concert halls and theatres. The FBI made it almost impossible for Robeson to earn a living and his savings was soon dwindled to nothing.

Robeson continued to press for the full rights of blacks in America. He was determined to defend his rights and the rights of others. He did not feel he could rest until everyone in America had the full rights and privileges of citizenship white men enjoyed. Finally in 1958, his right of travel was restored and Robeson returned to England and the Soviet Union for concerts.

In 1965 Robeson retired from the stage and went to live in Philadelphia. Robeson died on January 23, 1976.