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Robeson, Eslanda Goode (1896–1965)

Robeson, Eslanda Goode (1896–1965)

African-American activist and wife of Paul Robeson. Name variations: Eslanda Cardoza Goode Robeson; Essie Goode; Essie Robeson. Born Eslanda Cardoza Goode in Washington, D.C., in 1896; died of cancer at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City on December 13, 1965; daughter of John Goode (a former slave and a clerk in the War Department) and Eslanda (Cardoza) Goode; attended public schools in New York City; attended University of Illinois, 1912–14; Columbia University, B.S., 1920; studied anthropology at London University, 1935–37; studied at the London School of Economics, 1938; enrolled in doctoral course at Hartford Seminary, c. 1939; married Paul Robeson (the activist and actor), on August 17, 1921; children: son Paul (Pauli) Robeson, Jr. (b. 1927).

Born Eslanda Cardoza Goode in Washington, D.C., in 1896, "Essie," as she was known by her intimates, was the wife of the dynamic performer and activist Paul Robeson. Although not as well known as her famous husband, Eslanda Robeson by no means hid in his shadow. Through her writings and actions, she advocated racial equality and withstood considerable political and social pressure in the course of her long activist career.

Eslanda came from a distinguished lineage. Her mother Eslanda Cardoza Goode was a descendent of the prominent Sephardic Jewish Cardozo (name spellings vary) family of Charleston, South Carolina, and her mother's father Francis Lewis Cardozo had been secretary of state and secretary of the treasury of South Carolina during Reconstruction. Once called "the most highly educated Negro in America," he was also principal of one of the first secondary schools for blacks in Charleston, South Carolina. Eslanda's father died from an alcohol-related illness when she was six years old. Her mother then moved to New York City with Eslanda and her two brothers to avoid Washington's segregated schools. Eslanda Cardoza Goode served as a role model for her daughter by studying osteopathy and beauty culture, eventually opening a successful practice that catered to such members of the New York elite as Kate Davis Pulitzer (Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer) and Edith Kingdon Gould (Mrs. George J. Gould). The Harlem environment in which she grew up also profoundly impacted the girl, arriving as she did at the start of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1912, Eslanda left to study at the State University of Illinois, but returned two years later to complete her undergraduate education at Columbia University. Through close friendships with John Reed and other activists, she developed leftwing political views and a deep commitment to social change. She graduated from Columbia with a degree in chemistry in 1920, and began work as an analytical chemist and technician in the surgery and pathology department at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center—probably the first black woman to do so. While there, she met her future husband, Paul Robeson, who had come to the hospital for treatment after a football accident. Already a well-known figure by this time, he had moved to Harlem in 1919 after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University and was pursuing a law degree at Columbia. The pair married on August 17, 1921.

It was Eslanda who suggested the change of career that would also change the scope of their lives; she convinced Paul to take the lead in a YMCA production of Simon the Cyrenian, his first role in what would be a long and distinguished career in the theater. Audiences were thrilled by his depiction of the black African who carried Christ's cross, and offers to play other roles quickly poured in from prominent theater groups. Although quality roles were few and far between for a black man in the 1920s, Paul Robeson refused to act in any play which depicted blacks as savages or stereotypes.

Having determined that there was no real future for a black man in the legal profession, despite an offer to join a prestigious white law firm, Paul accepted an offer to act in London. Eslanda resigned her position at the hospital in 1925 in order to accompany him. Soon Paul was the toast of two continents and was regularly performing in both the United States and Europe. He showcased his powerful baritone voice on a European concert tour in 1926, and Eslanda decided to give up chemistry altogether to become his full-time manager. She also gave birth to their only son, Paul, Jr., in 1927, although she left him in her mother's care for most of his childhood so she could be free to manage her husband's career.

Eslanda released her first book, a revealing biography of Paul Robeson, in 1930. Paul Robeson, Negro reflected her admiration for her husband and highlighted her part in directing his career, but it also did not hide the couple's marital troubles. She was frank about the possibility of her husband's engaging in extramarital affairs, which apparently contributed to their separation from 1930 to 1933. They eventually were able to renew their partnership, both professionally and personally.

Despite their tremendous success, the Robesons continued to be victimized by bigotry and segregation in the United States. They found the more racially tolerant atmosphere of Europe refreshing, particularly in England where the British aristocracy lionized the pair. At a British Labour Party luncheon at the House of Commons in 1928, the Robesons found themselves intensely sympathetic to Labour's views on social equality, a leftist affiliation they would stretch even further when they traveled in the Soviet Union for a year in 1935. They were impressed by the ethnic tolerance among the Soviets, and their outspoken support of certain Communist ideas would later result in tremendous hardship. Eslanda and Paul also traveled to Spain during the Civil War to support the antifascists.

In the midst of her busy schedule, Eslanda decided to act on her growing interest in Africa and embark on a study of anthropology. She studied anthropology for two years at London University, and followed this with a year at the London School of Economics. Although frustrated by the underlying prejudices of her colleagues, Eslanda determined to follow through with her degree, and journeyed to Africa with her young son in 1936 to complete her field work. This trip, and what she learned by examining the myriad economic, cultural, and political realities of Africa, influenced her deeply. Her desire for racial equality took on a Pan-African slant as she recognized the importance of racial pride and unity for the defeat of racism as an ideology.

Eslanda returned with her husband to the United States in 1939 and began her doctoral studies at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. However, she was not content to remain in the academic world. She and Paul joined with other influential blacks to found the Council on African Affairs in 1941. This council worked to inform American public opinion on current events in Africa, with a view to rallying black and progressive-minded public circles of the United States to the support of the African peoples in their struggle for independence. Eslanda was one of the most outspoken and articulate members of this organization and was often blunt in her criticism of western colonial powers.

The mid-1940s brought significant accolades to the Robesons as Eslanda's book African Journey appeared in 1945 and Paul received the Spingarn Medal that same year. While a scholarly work, African Journey was not so much analytical as it was descriptive of the living habits and cultural customs of different tribes, complete with photographs taken by Eslanda. Both provocative and enlightening, it was a landmark work in the sense that it was the first by an American to show the need for reform among the colonial powers. This theme of colonialism became a focal point of Eslanda's later writings; she strongly believed that the end of World War II hearkened a new era of freedom from European colonizers for emerging nations in Asia and Africa.

While Paul went to Europe to entertain victorious Allied troops, Eslanda went as a delegate to the San Francisco Conference, the founding convention of the United Nations. Representing the Council on African Affairs, she hoped to influence the fledgling United Nations to act as a mediator between European colonial powers and their colonies. As the Cold War deepened during these postwar years, Eslanda expressed strong opinions about what she saw as a wayward American foreign policy, arguing that by demonizing Communism, the American government wanted to avoid economic and social problems rooted in racism and colonialism. She hoped to influence the political system from the inside by contributing to the establishment of the Progressive Party. She worked on Henry A. Wallace's presidential campaign, and ran as a Progressive candidate in her own right for secretary of the state of Connecticut in 1948. Two years later, she made a bid for Connecticut's atlarge congressional seat. In 1949, she teamed up with Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck to write An American Argument. Set up as a dialogue between the two women, Eslanda argued that the United States failed to be a complete democracy, particularly in its treatment of its black citizens. She believed that, while legislation was essential in securing equal rights for African-Americans, a united black protest was needed to spur the process along.

The powerful political stands of the Robesons did not escape the notice of the U.S. government. The House Un-American Activities Committee called up both Robesons to question them about their Communist affiliations and beliefs at a time of national hysteria over the possible Communist threat to the American way of life. Although the committee failed to find anything incriminating in their testimonies, the U.S. government nonetheless revoked their passports, effectively ending Paul's career as a concert singer. (His reputation in America had already been damaged by an anti-Communist riot at a concert site where he had been scheduled to perform.) The Robesons' income dropped catastrophically, from more than $100,000 a year to $2,000. They were forced to sell their estate in Connecticut in order to live. Foreign governments and cultural groups, both Communist and otherwise, were loud in their condemnation of the persecution, but Washington remained unwilling to reissue their passports. Eslanda refused to be silenced; despite her own troubles, she continued to speak out against injustice wherever she saw it. She followed news of the burgeoning civil-rights movement with avidity, and took part in the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1957.

After nearly ten years, the situation finally began to turn around for the Robesons. In 1958, Paul received an invitation to sing at Carnegie Hall; it was his first concert there in almost a decade. That same year, they finally were issued passports, and promptly traveled to Great Britain and then on to the Soviet Union. However, the years had taken their toll on both Eslanda and Paul. In 1959, they were hospitalized for fatigue and other complaints. In 1963, they traveled to East Germany, where Eslanda spoke to a crowd of more than 20,000, and the East German government awarded her the Peace Medal and the Clara Zetkin Medal in honor of her work for world peace. Still suffering from poor health and fatigue, they then returned to the United States.

While she remained bluntly critical of inequality, colonialism, and imperialism, Eslanda Robeson's health continued to decline. She died of cancer at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City on December 13, 1965. Her husband Paul Robeson followed her in death in 1976.

sources:

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Brenda Kubiac , freelance writer, Chesterfield, Michigan

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