Robeson, Eslanda Goode 1896–1965

views updated May 29 2018

Eslanda Goode Robeson 18961965

At a Glance


Plagued by Poor Health

For Better or For Worse

The Council on African Affairs

Selected writings


Anthropologist, author

Eslanda Essie Robeson was a woman of many talents. An astute business manager to her talented husband, Paul, she was also a social anthropologist who made a noteworthy ethnographical contribution to the study of Africa, and a zealous worker against previously accepted colonialism, whose outspokenness and courage helped to improve life for millions. Her maternal ancestors were a racially diverse family. Their dynasty dated back to her great-grandfather, Isaac Nunez Cardozo, a descendent of a wealthy Spanish Jewish family who had immigrated to America in the late eighteenth century. While the political climate of the times demanded that he claim her as his mistress, Isaac had actually married an octoroon slave in Charleston, South Carolina, and had fathered a family of six children. One of them, Francis Lewis, became Essies grandfather.

Francis was both intelligent and an intellectual. In an era offering few Negroes the opportunity to attend college, he graduated from the University of Glasgow, then became the pastor of a Congregational church in New Haven, Connecticut. With financial help from the American Missionary Society Francis Cardozo established the

first secondary school for black students in Charleston, and even, in a gesture that would have caused the same indignant refusal 90 years later, appealed to the South Carolina legislature for the right to enroll white children.

Ahead of his time in other ways, Francis Cardozo was a feminist, encouraging such strong opinions in his daughter Eslanda that she was labeled imperious throughout her life. However, she was also intensely intelligent, and both qualities served her well during her short term as a teacher. After 1890, when she married a U.S. War Department clerk named John Goode, Eslanda was forced to retire, since married women were not acceptable to the school authorities. She became a housewife and an energetic, attentive mother to her three children.

The Goodes only daughter, also named Eslanda, was usually known as Essie. She was just four years old when over-indulgence in alcohol killed her father, but thanks to her mothers self-confidence and determination to earn a good living, she did not suffer the genteelly poverty-stricken childhood that was the lot of so many turn-of-the-century children. Instead she grew up in

At a Glance

Born in Washington, DC, on December 15, 1896; died of breast cancer, on December 13, 1965; daughter of Eslanda Cardozo Coode and John Goode; married Paul (an actor, singer, and activist) Robeson, 1921; children: Paul.Education: Teachers College of Columbia University, B.S., 1917; London University and London School of Economics, 1937-38; Hartford Seminary, Ph.D., 1945.

Columbia University Presbyterian Hospital, histological chemist, 1920-25; business manager for her husband, Paul Robeson, 1925-65. Author,Paul Robeson, Negro, Harper, 1930;African Journey, Day, 1945; (with Pearl Buck)An American Arguement, Day, 1949.

Selected awards: German Peace Medal, Clara Zetkin Medal, both 1934.

relative security, the daughter of a successful New York beauty-shop owner.

In 1912 the family moved to Chicago, where Essie quickly proved herself as intelligent and highly motivated as her mother. She graduated from high school at age 16 and won a full four-year scholarship to the University of Illinois, where, with an eye to longterm career benefits she embarked upon a domestic science degree. But before long she found its lack of challenge so boring that she changed her major to chemistry, and, preferring the atmosphere of New York City, transferred to Columbia University. This proved to be a fateful move. Within a short time of graduation she found a job in the pathology laboratory at Presbyterian Hospital, and through her work, she also found romance with a young law student named Paul Robeson.


Essie and Paul had met casually at several Harlem parties, but they did not really get to know each other until a football injury during the 1920 season sent Paul to Presbyterian for several weeks. Both acknowledged that their personalities were very different (according to various accounts, she opted for a focused and methodically planned life, while he often preferred to let things

take their course), but they fell in love anyway, and on August 17, 1921, they eloped. She became a formidable force in her husbands career.

It was Essies insistence that encouraged Paul to accept the part of Simon in a Harlem YMCA production of Simon the Cyrenian.One of the first plays ever written specifically for black players, the 1920 production attracted considerable attention. Interested talent-seekers noted that Robesons tall, commanding presence, his instinctive talent, and his deeply-textured, velvety voice was producing packed houses and more offers. He accepted a juicy part in a play about voodoo called Taboo.

Paul was not particularly interested in taking it, since he was uneasy about his college grades. Once again, Essie insisted, on the grounds that the virulently anti-black feeling in the country might make it hard for him to find a good job after he graduated. He was too much of a realist to disagree. Reluctantly he accepted the Taboo role. To encourage him and make sure that his performance was as stellar as possible, Essie came to every rehearsal armed with a pen, a pad, and a keen interest in showing him exactly how each gesture could be improved. Once more her attention to detail paid off. While play was panned by the critics, Paul Robesons performance drew several appreciative reviews. The general enthusiasm brought him a much larger part when Taboo was slated for English audiences, who were to see it under the title Voodoo.

Plagued by Poor Health

Essie did not accompany Paul in 1922, when he left for England. She had been told that adhesions from an earlier appendectomy would make more surgery necessary, and she preferred to have it done while he was away. She also chose not to distract him from his work by telling him about her health problems before he left. Instead, she wrote 21 letters to him and gave them to friends to mail, then checked herself into the Presbyterian Hospital.

Unfortunately this proved to be a bad move. Rather than the prompt recovery she had expected, serious postoperative complications kept her in the hospital for more than four weeks. This unforeseen problem brought the subterfuge to an end; Paul was far too perceptive to miss the strange lack of interest her letters seemed to have in any of his daily concerns, including his loneliness and the scant approval the play was earning from British audiences. When a cable from her eventually revealed the truth about her surgery he was so upset that he sailed

home from England as soon as he could possibly leave.

Paul landed a prestigious job as soon as he graduated in 1923, but soon found the law firm one of the most hurtful environments he had ever endured. The staff proved so racist and uncooperative that he walked out one day and never went back. Having seen her prophecy blossom into unwelcome reality, Essie became the most important strategist in her husbands career path. In 1925, to give its business aspects her full attention she left her job at the hospital and began to book his concert dates and plan his tours.

During that fall, the Robesons went to England for Pauls eagerly-anticipated appearances in Eugene ONeills Emperor Jones.Photographs of Essie taken at this time show her as elegant and sophisticated, and as fascinating to know as her newly famous husband. For her part, she found England far more cosmopolitan and far less racist than America, and enjoyed the respite from the constant pinpricks and refusals to serve them that both she and Paul often found in the United States.

On November 2,1927, while Paul was singing in Paris, Essie gave birth to a son at home in New York City. She had a difficult delivery, but once again chose to keep her health problems to herself. Unfortunately her condition worsened, so eventually her mother cabled Paul and told him the truth. Though he had planned a much longer stay in Europe he came home promptly, admired his son, and worked hard to improve his voice while he waited out Essies long convalescence.

Her precarious health was not enough to keep Essie away from her self-appointed duties as Pauls business manager. Baby Paul was just five months old in 1928, when she left him with her mother and went to England again, to be with Paul for his appearance in the Kern and Hammerstein musical,Showboat.She kept very busy during the shows run, which was far longer than anyone had anticipated. While Pauls cameo role as the cotton-toting Joe mesmerized British audiences right through that fall until the winter of the year, Eslanda was equally occupied with a biography of her husband.

The 1930 appearance of Eslandas biography,Paul Robeson, Negro, caused a nervous stir. Ever-realistic, Essie dared to discuss the adoring female groupies constantly circling round and went as far as to note that their unwanted attention was causing trouble in her marriage. One telling passage, quoted in Virginia Hamiltons Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man, implies a wifely warning:I know that you are faithful to me in the all important spirit of things; that I am the one woman in your life.

For Better or For Worse

Unfortunately, Essie was sure of exactly the opposite, and had her suspicion confirmed soon after Showboat closed. In the spring of 1930, Paul moved on to Shakespeares Othello, playing the title role opposite Peggy Ashcroft, who was playing Desdemona. About three months into the run Essie opened a letter to Paul from Ashcroft. She was so positive that her handsome husband was having a real-life affair with his stage Desdemona that she fired off a passionately written accusation to him from Switzerland, where she had gone to visit her mother and baby. He wrote calmly back, denying nothing. Furthermore he used this chance to reprimand Essie for opening his mail and also to ask for a separation.

Both Robesons stayed in England, in separate apartments. Pauls affair with Ashcroft did not last, but it was soon supplanted by a much more serious affair with another white woman. Essie began to think about divorce. By the end of 1934, when Paul was invited to Russia to discuss the possibility of a movie, an uneasy peace had been restored, but the relationship was permanently flawed. For Essie the whole experience was painful but instructive. Essie had learned a lesson that would steer her for the rest of her life. Never again would she willingly sacrifice her independence and her creativity to further her husbands career.

In 1935 Essie began to study social anthropology at London University. One of her professors was Bronis-law Malinowski, one of the disciplines most highly respected founders. As a young scientist Malinowski had been the first in his field to do actual fieldwork. He had spent some years in the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea and had found the experience indispensable to his theories about the cultural functioning of societies. Under his tutelage Eslanda Robeson found herself becoming more interested in the culture of her own ancestors and made up her mind to follow Malinowskis lead and do some fieldwork of her own in Africa.

In 1936, Eslanda went to Africa for three months, taking her eight-year-old son with her on a trip stretching all the way from Capetown, South Africa at the continents southernmost tip, to Cairo, Egypt in the north. Conscious that her progress was closely watched by the press wherever she went, she was careful not to be too outspoken about the poverty and hopelessness she saw in many colonial countries. But she kept conscientious notes throughout the tour and took thousands of pictures, and began to form her own ideas about Africas dire need for self-determination.

The beginning of World War II in 1939 sent both Robesons to America from their respective posts abroad. Briefly they lived in New York City, then bought a large country residence in Enfield, Connecticut. The house did little to heal the marital stresses that were once more appearing. Paul seldom came there, and Essie registered at the nearby Hartford Seminary to complete the requirements for a Ph.D. degree and organized the notes from her African trip into her second book,African Journey.

In 1945 Essie completed her degree and saw the publication of African Journey.She was gratified to note that it drew far more favorable reviews than her first effort had done, though some were somewhat condescending. Still, such reactions were the minority. Most publications commented on her beautiful photographs and noted that her observations were pertinent, interesting and very well written. Justifiably popular, the book sold out its first printing.

The Council on African Affairs

In addition to the book and her Ph.D. Essie was also caught up in the activities of a group called the Council on African Affairs (CAA). Designed as a lobbying force focusing on Africas struggle against colonialism, the CAA was a force significant enough in the Robesons life to warrant the cancellation of concert engagements that clashed with its meetings and influential enough to attract widespread support for its underlying anti-colonialist message. Paul had been its chairman since 1941, but Eslandas role as a separate entity really began in 1945, when she was sent as an observer to the San Francisco Conference, where the United Nations was formed.

To give herself sufficient breadth of knowledge to talk about Africas plight at the United Nations, she took a second trip there in 1946, traveling through the Congo, Ruanda-Burundi, and French Equatorial Africa. In each of these countries, she noted, the emerging political trend of the people was leaning more toward the sympathetic Soviet Union and farther away from the ruling colonial powers.

Essies own feeling of empathy toward the Soviet Union had grown slowly. She had first gone there in 1934 with Paul and had been touched at the warm reception they had received, which had contrasted starkly with barely concealed venom from the few Germans they had encountered while pausing in a newly Hitler-ruled Berlin during their journey. But this Russian warmth had not been enough to lull her into complete security about the countrys economic or political desirability. Her brothers, John and Frank Goode, had been living there for a while, and she could not help noticing that John, who had found work as a bus driver, had no money for warm clothes, decent food, or even for a room to himself. Still, in the 12 years that had passed since that visit, many things had changed. Most important had been the Allied supremacy ending World War II, for she fully agreed that an Axis victory, spreading its paean of hate, would have made the lives of all blacks everywhere much worse than they were.

With the beginning of the 1950s Paul Robesons political activities doused his brilliant career star. The catalyst was Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose U.S. Senate Investing Committee was instigating hysterical witch hunts into alleged communist activities all over the United States. The Robesons were called to the stand on separate occasions. Essie took the stand on July 7, 1953, in the company of her lawyer, Milton Friedman.

To the surprise of nobody, when asked whether she was a member of the Communist Party, Essie chose to plead the Fifth Amendment. However, she also chose to plead the Fifteenth Amendment, dealing with the voting rights of American citizens. The move put the committee in a quandary, which Martin Duberman outlined in his work,Paul Robeson: Before this committee we do not have Negroes or whites, McCarthy told her. They all have the same rights. Essie spiritedly replied, You are white, and I am Negro, and this is a very white committee, and I feel I must protect myself. But her brave words did little to helpuntil 1958, both Robesons had their passports revoked.

Deprived of their international livelihood, they had to sell their Connecticut home. Their joint popularity as leaders of the budding American Civil Rights movement carried them through the worst years of their lives, but Pauls health was broken by the ordeal. Once again becoming his greatest support, Essie gave most of her attention to nursing him.

With the start of the tumultuous 1960s, both Robesons realized that the days of their vigorous prime were past. After five years of stoically borne suffering, Essie died of breast cancer in 1965. Increasingly frail, making very

few public appearances, Paul lived on until 1976an immortal Othello who might never have been seen without his wifes encouragement.

Selected writings

Paul Robeson, Negro, Harper, 1930.

African Journey, Day, 1945.

(With Pearl Buck) An American Argument, Day, 1949.


Duberman, Martin Bauml,Paul Robeson, Alfred A.Knopf, 1988.

Freedomways, Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, Dodd, Mead, 1965.

Gilliam, Dorothy Butler,Paul Robeson, All-American, New Republic Book Company, 1976.

Graham, Shirley,Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World, Julian Messner, 1971.

Hamilton, Virginia,Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man, Harper & Row, 1974.

Robeson, Susan,The Whole World In His Hands, Citadel Press, 1981.

Gillian Wolf

Eslanda Goode Robeson

views updated May 21 2018

Eslanda Goode Robeson

A distinguished cultural anthropologist in her own right, Eslanda Goode Robeson (1896-1965) is remembered also as the wife and long-time business manager of singer/actor Paul Robeson Sr. Highly educated and cultured, she traveled widely in pursuit of her own career and that of her husband until the couple was effectively grounded by a passport revocation in the mid-1950s. They resumed their travels only after a Supreme Court decision in 1958 upheld the unconstitutionality of the unfounded restrictions.

Robeson was born Eslanda Cardozo Goode in Washington, D.C., on December 15, 1896. Known as "Essie" to her family and friends, Robeson was the youngest of three children and was the only daughter of Eslanda (Cardozo), a one-time schoolteacher, and John J. Goode, a U.S. War Department clerk who died when his daughter was four. Robeson's father was a mixture of Native American, English, and Scotch. Her mother was descended from a wealthy Spanish-Jewish immigrant who, against all social taboos, had boldly married an octoroon (someone of one eighth black ancestry) slave. Thus, although she was a Negro, Robeson was very light-skinned in appearance. After the death of her father, she and her brothers were raised by their mother who brought them to New York where she operated a beauty shop in order to support them. The next move was to Chicago in 1912.

Highly confident and intelligent, Robeson was raised in a cultured environment. She possessed a particularly pleasing singing voice and at the urging of her high school music teacher, Theresa Armitage, took private singing lessons for approximately one year. After graduating from high school at age 16, Robeson enrolled in a domestic science program at the University of Illinois on a full scholarship. She soon lost interest however in both her curriculum and in the school environment and transferred instead to Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. There she undertook a more challenging program in the physical sciences and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry in 1920. According to some accounts, Robeson earned a chemistry degree from the University of Illinois in 1917, although United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files, which were opened on Robeson during the 1940s, suggest that the prior is true.

Married Paul Robeson

She met her future husband, Paul Robeson, in 1920 at Presbyterian Hospital where she had secured a student job in the surgical pathological laboratory. Also a student at Columbia, Paul Robeson was enrolled in the law school and was hospitalized with a football injury when they met. The two were married on August 17, 1921, and she continued to work at the hospital until 1925. In 1920, largely at his wife's insistence, Paul Robeson accepted the title role in a Harlem YMCA production of Simon the Cyrenian. He later appeared in Taboo and performed in London when the play went on the road in 1922. In the years immediately following her marriage, Robeson's life revolved largely around her husband's career when, after completing his law degree and working briefly at the law firm of a friend, he turned permanently to a career in performance as both an actor and a singer. Robeson then assumed the role of his manager and handled the family finances. When her husband gained international renown, she followed him in his travels across Europe.

Due to complications from appendix surgery, Robeson had been unable to travel with her husband on his first trip to England in 1922, but she accompanied him in 1925 when he returned to star in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones. The couple set up housekeeping in Chelsea, and after the play closed in early October they moved to Villefranchesur-Mer at the foot of the Alps and remained there until December of that year. Robeson was deeply in love with her husband at that time and was happy with her life in general. She later wrote in Paul Robeson, Negro of the small French Riviera town where they lived on Cap Ferrat, calling it, "One of the most beautiful harbors in the world." Likewise of her singer-husband she wrote, "I've married the most beautiful Voice I've ever heard."

Upon her return to the United States, she felt an urgent desire to conceive and bear a child, although her husband remained ambivalent to the notion of parenting, citing her past frail health as the reason for his reluctance. Robeson's determination prevailed, and she became pregnant. Their son and only child, Paul Robeson Jr., was born in New York City on November 2, 1927. Paul Sr. at the time of the birth was performing in Paris, France. Robeson rejoined him five moths later, in May of 1928, in London. After they settled early on in Hampstead, Robeson sent for her mother and son in the United States to join her and her husband. She remained in England until October of 1929 and returned on December 28, 1931.

In the late 1920s Robeson had begun work on her first published manuscript, which was a biography of her husband. After numerous rewrites, the book entitled Paul Robeson, Negro was published by Harper in 1930. Also in 1930, she starred with her husband in a relatively obscure silent film drama called Borderline. Written and directed by Kenneth MacPherson, the movie presents the story of an adulterous relationship between a black woman Adah, played by Robeson, and a white man named Thorne.

Personal Career Success

Two years later, Robeson informally separated from her husband. She enrolled in graduate school at London University from 1933 to 1935, specializing in anthropology with a focus on the colonized black people of the world, who were commonly called Negroes in the context of the times. She graduated in 1937 from the London School of Economics.

During these years as a student in England, she made her first trip to Africa, in 1936, in realization of a life-long dream, but only after considerable difficulty in obtaining a visa. Such a visa clearance to Africa, as she learned in the process, was rarely given to a Negro. Despite bureaucratic obstacles, she obtained the necessary papers after citing her academic curriculum as the purpose behind her visit. Accompanied by her young son, then eight years old, she embarked on a three-month junket, with an itinerary extending from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo. In her second full-length writing, African Journey, published by Day in 1945, she provided a diary-formatted chronicle of the 1936 excursion. Among her observations in the book, Robeson reported on the superior political awareness that she perceived among black Africans in comparison to black Americans. The book went into a second printing soon after publication, and Greenwood Press reprinted the volume in 1972.

After anthropological visits to Costa Rica and Honduras in 1940, the Robesons moved from New York City to Enfield, Connecticut, where they purchased an estate, called The Beeches, in 1941. In Enfield, they were the only family of color in the entire town, with the exception of migrant tobacco farmers. Paul Jr. was sent to high school in Springfield, Massachusetts.

World War II

Always socially aware, Robeson's community involvement accelerated during the years of World War II. She was heard widely in her lectures on race relations and worked professionally with Pearl Buck. In 1949 the two co-authored a book, An American Argument, published by Day. Also during the 1940s Robeson enrolled at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut where she earned a Ph.D. in 1945.

With her marriage seriously fractured by 1945 she remained active on other fronts. Working from her home base in Enfield, she maintained a high visibility through community involvement, participating in the Red Cross Motor Corps and keeping active as a writer. She held a seat on the staff of the Council of African Affairs (CAA) and traveled to San Francisco in the capacity of CAA observer to the formation of the Untied Nations. She made a visit to India during which she struck up a friendship with the Indian National Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. After her return she maintained a friendship with him by mail and later entertained his nieces, the Pandit sisters, in her Enfield home when they attended college at Harvard's Wellesley College.

Robeson returned to Africa in 1946, where she visited the Congo, French Equatorial Africa, and Ruanda-Burundi (now Rwanda). During this visit she noted a growing sympathy for socialism among black Africans. Robeson had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 while on tour with her husband, and both of her brothers had emigrated from the United States and lived there for many years. Yet she had come to regard that nation with skepticism, in part based on feedback from her brothers.

Persecution under McCarthyism

Political sympathies notwithstanding, during the 1950s, Robeson and her husband were caught up in the phenomenon known as McCarthyism, by which a large number of Americans—many of them prominent entertainers—were investigated by the U.S. government and placed under suspicion of conducting un-American activities. Many of these individuals were blacklisted in their professions and had their careers ruined, including Paul Robeson.

The FBI opened a file on the Robesons in the early 1940s. On July 7, 1953, Robeson was subpoened by the United States Senate and asked if she was a member of the Communist Party. Although she was known to subscribe to the Daily Worker, she had never held party membership. Regardless she refused to give testimony, citing her Constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment. She offered instead unsolicited statements and accused the Senate committee of pursuing a racially biased agenda. "I am Negro, and this is a very white committee …" she said, as quoted in Contemporary Black Biography. Her passport was revoked as was her husband's, but the pair made use of the confinement, which lasted until 1958, and joined the vanguard of the growing U.S. civil rights movement.

Without a passport, Robeson was nonetheless able to participate with a group from the United Nations that traveled to Trinidad in the spring of 1958. The trip, in conjunction with a celebration of the independence of the British West Indies, was for anthropological purposes. Robeson joined the tour in the capacity of correspondent for the New World Review. In the course of the two-week trip, which lasted from April 17 through April 30, she lectured on race relations in Africa and the United States and also visited Port-au-Prince and Jamaica.

Her passport was restored only as a result of a Supreme Court decision of June 16, 1958, prohibiting the FBI from revoking passports by reason of a person's Communist Party affiliations. Less than one month later, having secured the return of their passports, Robeson and her husband departed for Europe on July 10, 1958, with plans to live in London. They continued on to the Soviet Union, and from there she made a third trip to Africa, to attend a conference in Ghana, which had recently attained independence.

Robeson remained in the Soviet Union until 1963. At that time, suffering from breast cancer, she returned with her husband to the United States, stopping en route to East Germany where she was honored with the German Peace Medal and the Clara Zetkin Medal. She died at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City on December 13, 1965.

Robeson's avocations included many sports, among them basketball, swimming, and bowling. She was also a talented photographer, and her pictures—in particular from her African travels—were very well received by the public.


Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 13, Gale Research, 1996.

Robeson, Eslanda Goode, Paul Robeson, Negro, Harper & Brothers, 1930.


Department of Justice, "Federal Bureau of Investigation File: Paul and Eslanda Robeson," 1940-60. □