Born: April 9, 1898
Princeton, New Jersey
Died: January 23, 1976
African American singer, actor, and political activist
Paul Robeson was an African American singer, actor, and political activist. He crusaded for equality and justice for African Americans.
Paul Leroy Robeson was born the last of eight children in the Robeson family, on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. His father, William Drew Robeson, was a runaway slave who fought for the North in the Civil War (1861–65), when Northern forces clashed with those of the South over secession, or the South's desire to leave the Union. His father put himself through Lincoln University, received a degree in divinity, and was pastor at a Presbyterian church in Princeton. Paul's mother, Anna Louisa Robeson, was a member of the distinguished Bustill family of Philadelphia, which included patriots in the Revolutionary War (1775–83), when the American colonies fought for independence from Great Britain. She also helped found the Free African Society, and maintained agents in the Underground Railroad, a secret system to help runaway slaves.
Paul's mother died when he was six and his father moved the remaining family to Sommerville, New Jersey. There, young Paul spent his childhood under his father's influence, regularly working with him after school and also singing in his father's church. From his father Robeson learned to work hard, pursue valuable goals, fight for his beliefs, and to help his people's cause.
At seventeen Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Although he was only the third African American student in the school's history, Robeson was immensely popular and was considered an athlete "without equal." He won an amazing twelve major letters (varsity spots on sports teams) in four years. His academic record was also brilliant. He won first prize (for four consecutive years) in every speaking competition the at the college for which he was eligible, and he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, a scholarship honor society. In addition, he engaged in social work in the local black community and delivered his senior class graduation speech. Rutgers subsequently 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 City law firm. In 1921 he married Eslanda Goode Cardozo; they had one child. Robeson's career as a lawyer ended abruptly when others within the firm turned on him because he was African American. He then turned to acting as a career, playing the lead in All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) and The Emperor Jones (1925). He added to 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, England (1930), Toussaint L'Ouverture (1934), and Stevedore (1935). His Othello (1943–44) 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 actor ever to do the role in England's Shakespeare Memorial Theater.
Robeson's 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 African American men to play serious roles on the American stage, opened up this aspect of the theater for African Americans. Robeson used his talents not only to entertain but to gain appreciation for the cultural differences among men.
During the 1930s Robeson entertained throughout Europe and the United States. In 1934 he made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union. He spoke out against the Nazis, Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) radical German army, and sang to Loyalist troops during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), when battles erupted between Spain's traditionalists and reigning Second Spanish Republic. In addition he 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). A spokesman for cultural black nationalism (a radical movement that called for African Americans to set up their own self-governing nation), Robeson also continued to fight racial discrimination (forced separation people based on race). During World War II (1939–45), when the Allies—the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union—battled German-led Axis forces, he supported the American effort by entertaining soldiers in camps and laborers in war industries.
After the war, Robeson worked full-time campaigning for the rights of African Americans around the world. In a period of great paranoia within the nation, the American government and many citizens felt threatened by Robeson's crusade for peace and on behalf of minorities. The fact that for over fifteen years he was America's most popular African American did not prevent Robeson from being banned from American concert and meeting halls and being denied a passport to travel overseas.
During the 1950s Robeson performed in black churches and for trade unions. After eight 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 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Spingarn Medal, several honorary degrees from colleges, the Diction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, numerous awards 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 (generalizations of a person or group) and limitations throughout his life. He added fifteen 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."
Robeson returned to America in 1963 in poor health and soon retired from public life. Slowly deteriorating and living in seclusion, Robeson died on January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after suffering a stroke.
It took Robeson seventy-seven 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 in 1917 and 1918, the first African American to do so. In 1995, after his race and politics no longer took away from his legacy and the awards were based more on accomplishments, he was inducted posthumously (after his death) into the College Football Hall of Fame at the new fourteen million dollar museum's grand opening in South Bend, Indiana. Sports Illustrated called it a "long-overdue step toward atonement [setting things right]."
In an article in Jet magazine, Robeson's son, Paul Jr., who accepted the honor, talked about his father's influence on African American 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.
Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Larsen, Rebecca. Paul Robeson, Hero Before His Times. New York: F. Watts, 1989.
Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. New York: Othello Associates, 1958. Reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.
Robeson, Susan. The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1981.
Wright, David K. Paul Robeson: Actor, Singer, Political Activist. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.