Paul Robeson: A Legacy of Excellence and Eloquence
Activist, Artist and Voice of The People
"This amazing man, this great intellect, this magnificent genius with his overwhelming love of humanity is a devastating challenge to a society built on hypocrisy, greed and profit-seeking at the expense of commmon humanity."
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson, born April 9, 1898, was a political and civil rights activist, actor, singer, writer, and athlete.
Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey and a graduate of Somerville, New Jersey High School where he excelled at singing, acting, and athletics. His mother, Maria Louisa Bustill (1853-1904) was burned to death when a coal from the stove caught her dress on fire. Paul was then raised by his father, William Drew Robeson I (1845-1918), an escaped slave who became a preacher. His father impressed upon him the need for self-improvement through education. Paul's siblings include: William Drew Robeson, a physician who practiced in Washington, DC; Benjamin Reeve Robeson, a reverend; and Marian Robeson who lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Paul graduated with honors from Somerville High School in 1915. He won a scholarship to Rutgers University where he excelled in academics and was a four-letter man in sports. He was only the third African-American accepted at Rutgers. He wanted to attend Princeton University, but Princeton had not yet accepted an African-American. Paul was one of only three classmates at Rutgers accepted into Phi Beta Kappa. He was the class valedictorian, and became an All-American in American Football, had fifteen varsity letters, and was selected to Cap and Skull. He moved to Harlem and went on to earn a law degree at Columbia. He was in the same law school class as William O. Douglas. After he graduated in 1923 he became the first African-American hired at Stotesbury and Miner, one of New York's most prestigious law firms. He quit after a secretary refused to take dictation from him because of his color. Robeson also studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where he said he was alerted to the power and strength of his heritage, by learning about the history of Africa.
Marriage and Children
He married Essie Cardozo Goode (1896-1965) in August of 1921. She worked as a pathology technician at Columbia Medical Center in New York City. Essie was related to Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo). Together they had a single child: Paul Robeson II (1927- ).
Actor and Singer
Robeson found fame as an actor and singer with his fine bass voice. In addition to his stage performances, his renditions of old Negro spirituals were acclaimed. His first roles were in 1922 playing Simon in Simon the Cyrenian at the Harlem YMCA and Jim in Taboo at the Sam Harris Theater in Harlem. Taboo was later re-named Vodoo. He was acclaimed in his 1924 performances in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones where he originated the title role on the stage. Next he played Crown in DuBose Heyward's Porgy and Bess and, in 1930, he played Othello in England, when no US company would employ him for the role. He reprised the role in New York in 1943-1945. At the time the Broadway run of Othello was the longest Broadway run of any Shakespeare play. He won the Spingarn Medal in 1945 for his performance. Uta Hagen played Desdemona, and Jose' Ferrer played Iago. Robeson's repertoire of African-American folk songs helped bring these to much wider attention both inside the US and abroad, in particular his stunning rendition of "Go Down Moses."
Between 1925 and 1942 Robeson appeared in over a dozen Hollywood films. He reprised his title role in the film version of The Emperor Jones in 1933. He was cast as Joe in the 1936 film version of Show Boat. In this film his performance of "Ol' Man River" was very popular. He also was Umbopa in the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines. He would eventually be blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studio bosses for his political beliefs.
Paul Robeson by Yousuf Karsh, 1938
Critic of the United States
On his frequent trips to Western Europe and the Soviet Union he was highly critical of the conditions experienced by black Americans, especially in the segregated southern states. Robeson was an activist against lynching. He pressed President Truman aggressively on the issue in a tense 1946, making remarks that implied black people would fight back to defend themselves if the government would not, and in the same year founded the American Crusade Against Lynching. This outspokenness, together with sympathies expressed towards the Soviet Union, his membership in the CPUSA and his frequent trips to the Soviet Union led to his being investigated by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Robeson was under surveillance by the FBI from 1941 to 1974, when the Bureau decided that "no further investigation [of Robeson] was warranted."
Stamp issued by East Germany in 1983 to honour Paul Robeson
He still occasionally sang overseas, including a performance at the Welsh National Eisteddfod conducted over the telephone. In 1940, Robeson had appeared in The Proud Valley, in which he played a black labourer arriving in South Wales and winning the hearts of the local population; he continues to be thought of as having particular links with Wales, where his political views were not seen as controversial. Robeson also toured the Soviet Union in the summer of 1949 where during a rendition of "People's Battle Song," Robeson was applauded for over fifteen minutes by the Moscow audience.
In 1949, Robeson performed a concert in Peekskill, New York. After the concert, organized anti-Communist and racist vigilantes attacked departing concertgoers, while local police stood by and did nothing. The local newspaper was accused of encouraging the attacks, dubbed the Peekskill Riots.
He was investigated by the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that attempted to cite him for refusal to sign the non-communist declaration. In complicity with the HUAC the US State Department denied him a passport which effectively confined him to the United States. During a 1952 tour of the United States a concert was organized at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington State and British Columbia. This was done as an act of defiance against the authorities who refused to allow him to cross the border. The concert took place on May 18, 1952. Paul Robeson stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the Canada-US border and performed a concert for a large crowd on the Canadian side, variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people.
He was brought before the HUAC in 1956 after refusing to sign an affadavit affirming that he was not a communist. In the terse exchanges that followed, Robeson invoked the Fifth Amendment for several questions regarding his political affiliations, and eloquently lectured Committee members on civils rights issues concerning African-Americans. At one point he remarked: "you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves." Robesons' passport was returned to him after a 1958 Supreme Court decision that a US citizen's right to travel abroad could not be encroached upon without due process.
Prior to his passport's return in 1958, Robeson wrote a book, Here I Stand, which eloquently makes an impassioned case for concerted action to right the inequities of the Jim Crow system. After he got back his passport he moved to England. He spent five years touring the world, playing Othello again in 1959 in Tony Richardson's production at Stratford-upon-Avon, and singing throughout Europe and in Australia and New Zealand. It was on his visit to England that he befriended English actor Andrew Faulds and inspired him to take up a career in politics. His health broke down and he spent time in Russian and East German hospitals.
Paul Robeson returned to live in the United States in 1963. For the remainder of his life was plagued by ill health and depression, and his appearances were relatively few. His 75th birthday was celebrated in Carnegie Hall where a taped message from him was played.
Death and Burial
Paul Robeson died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1976 where he had been living with his sister. He was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. His obituary appeared in The New York Times on page 1 on January 24, 1976.
Although Robeson is one of the "Great Forerunners" in Black equality, the McCarthy era virtually erased his memory from the consciousness of younger Americans. He was conversant in over 20 languages, and at one time carried enough clout to be considered for a vice presidential spot on Henry A. Wallace's 1948 ticket. His singing voice was a sonorous bass-baritone once described thus: "If God should come to earth and sing, He would sound something like Paul Robeson." In 2004, the United States Postal Service honored Robeson with a stamp in the Black Heritage Series.
In 2001, the Welsh rock group Manic Street Preachers honoured Robeson's links with Wales in a tribute song, Let Robeson Sing.
Robeson was a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.
Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. Beacon Press (January 1, 1998). 160 pages. ISBN 0807064459.
Robeson, Paul. To You Beloved Comrade
- Paul Robeson digital archive at Rutgers University
- Rutgers Celebrates the Paul Robeson Stamp
- To You Beloved Comrade by Paul Robeson
- Paul Robeson Awards
- The Paul Robeson Collection
- Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, June 12, 1956
Research Sources: Biography, Wikipedia