Paul Leroy Robeson

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Paul Leroy Robeson

Paul Leroy Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor, and political activist. He crusaded for equality and justice for black people.

Paul Robeson made his career at a time when second-class citizenship was the norm for all African-Americans, who were either severely limited in, or totally excluded from, participation in the economic, political, and social institutions of America.

Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was a runaway slave who fought for the North in the Civil War, put himself through Lincoln University, received a degree in divinity, and was pastor at a Presbyterian church in Princeton. Paul's mother was a member of the distinguished Bustill family of Philadelphia, which included patriots in the Revolutionary War, helped found the Free African Society, and maintained agents in the Underground Railroad.

At 17 Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he was considered an athlete "without equal." He won an incomparable 12 major letters in 4 years. His academic record was also brilliant. He won first prize (for 4 consecutive years) in every speaking competition at college for which he was eligible, and he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He engaged in social work in the local black community. After he delivered the commencement class oration, Rutgers honored him as the "perfect type of college man."

Robeson graduated from the Columbia University Law School in 1923 and took a job with a New York law firm. In 1921 he married Eslanda Goode Cardozo; they had one child. Robeson's career as a lawyer ended abruptly when racial hostility in the firm mounted against him. He turned to acting as a career, playing the lead in All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) and The Emperor Jones (1925). He augmented his acting by singing spirituals. He was the first to give an entire program of exclusively African-American songs in concert, and he was one of the most popular concert singers of his time.

Robeson starred in such stage presentations as Show Boat (1928), Othello, in London (1930), Toussaint L'Ouverture (1934), and Stevedore (1935). His Othello (1943-1944) ran for 296 performances—a remarkable run for a Shakespearean play on Broadway. While playing opposite white actress Mary Ure, he became the first black ever to do the role in England's Shakespeare Memorial Theater (Jet, Feb. 6, 1995).

His most significant films were Emperor Jones (1933), Show Boat, Song of Freedom (both 1936), and Proud Valley (1939). Charles Gilpin and Robeson, as the first black men to play serious roles on the American stage, opened up this aspect of the theater for blacks. Robeson used his talents not only to entertain but to foster appreciation for the cultural differences among men.

During the 1930s Robeson entertained throughout Europe and America. In 1934 he made the first of several trips to Russia. He spoke out against the Nazis, sang to Loyalist troops during the Spanish Civil War, raised money to fight the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, supported the Committee to Aid China, and became chairman of the Council on African Affairs (which he helped establish in 1937). The most ardent spokesman for cultural black nationalism, and militant against colonialism in Africa, Robeson also continued to fight racial discrimination in America. While World War II raged, he supported the American effort by entertaining soldiers in camps and laborers in war industries.

After the war, Robeson devoted full time to campaigning for the rights of blacks around the world. In the period of anti-Communist hysteria, the American government and many citizens felt threatened by Robeson's crusade for peace and on behalf of exploited peoples. The fact that for over 15 years he was America's most popular black man did not prevent Robeson's being barred from American concert and meeting halls and being denied a passport to travel abroad.

During the repressive 1950s Robeson performed in black churches and for trade unions. After 8 years of denial, he won his passport, gave a concert in Carnegie Hall, and published Here I Stand in 1958. He went abroad on concert, television, and theater engagements.. He received numerous honors and awards: the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, several honorary degrees from colleges, the Diction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, numerous citations from labor unions and civic organizations, and the Stalin Peace Prize.

Robeson had used an "unshakable dignity and courage" learned from his father to break stereotypes, tradition and limitations throughout his life. He added 15 spoken languages, a law degree, an international career as singer and actor, and civil rights activist to his long list of accomplishments in his effort to be "the leader of the black race in America."

He returned to America in 1963 in poor health and soon retired from public life. Slowly detiorating and living in reclusiveness, Robeson died on January 23, 1976 in Philadelphia, after suffering a stroke.

However, it took him 77 years to win the respect of the college sports world. During his outstanding, four-year football career at Rutgers University, Robeson was named All-American consecutively in 1917 and 1918, the first African-American to do so. In 1995, after his color and politics were less of a detriment and the awards were based more on merit, he was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame at the new $14 million museum's grand opening in South Bend, Indiana. Sports Illustrated (Jan. 30, 1995) called it a "long-overdue step toward atonement."

In a report in Jet (February 6, 1995) magazine, Robeson's son, Paul, Jr., who accepted the honor, talked about his father's influence on other black men and his dedication to causes. "He felt it was a job he had to do for his people and the world as a whole," said the younger Robeson.

His songs, such as his trademark Ol' Man River, and acting have remained available in videos and new releases of his vintage recordings (Opera News, July 1995).

Further Reading

Robeson's autobiography, Here I Stand (1958), remains the best statement explaining his political activism. All of the works on Robeson are somewhat inadequate. The best comprehensive account of his life is Marie Seton, Paul Robeson (1958). His wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson, wrote a short, colorful biography, Paul Robeson, Negro (1930), a personal account of Robeson's early years which strongly reflects her own biases and sentiments. An erroneous and distorted study is Edwin P. Hoyt, Paul Robeson: The American Othello (1967). Further information on Robeson can be found in Opera News (July 1995); Jet (February 6, 1995); and Sports Illustrated (January 30, 1995). □