Paul Leroy Robeson
April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976
Notable: Singer, actor, and activist
Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey to Anna Louisa and William Drew Robeson. His mother was raised in a fiercely abolitionist family in Philadelphia while his father had been born into slavery and escaped to freedom before becoming a minister. Unfortunately, when Robeson was six his mother died in a fire which prompted his father to relocate the remaining family about 17 miles north to Somerville.
In high school, Robeson distinguished himself as both a gifted athlete and student which earned him a scholarship to Rutgers University. As only the third Black student to attend Rutgers he continued to shine both on and off the field. He became a letterman in baseball, basketball, track, and football. With football, in particular, he was a standout star twice earning All-American honors. Robeson’s grades combined with strong debate and oratory skills as well as membership in the school’s honor society led to him being chosen as valedictorian.
Following graduation, Robeson relocated to Harlem and enrolled at Columbia University’s Law School. Robeson supported himself and covered his tuition by playing professional football and teaching Latin. In 1923, Robeson completed law school and passed the New York State Bar clearing a path for him to work in law.
Yet, after a short stint at a law firm (which some sources state ended as a result of racial issues) he shifted his focus to acting. During this period Robeson met Eslanda Goode, a fellow student who became his wife and manager. From this union would come a stellar career as well as a 40-plus-year marriage and a son.
Robeson had begun his acting career around the time he started law school as a result of Eslanda pushing him to accept a role in a play that was being staged at the YMCA. As a result of performing in other plays, by the time he left his law firm, Robeson had been garnering attention from both the London and Broadway theater communities. With his impressive stature, booming voice, and well-developed oratory skills, Robeson began working on Broadway and in London as a leading man.
Now fully focused on acting, the mid-1920s would see him appear in plays such as All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. The latter of which would be adapted for a film in 1933 in which Robeson reprised his leading role. Robeson relocated to London and appeared in a 1928 production of Show Boat from which came his most well-known song, “Ol’ Man River”.
While in England he appeared in several films and also made history as the first Black person to play Othello on Broadway. After two decades of working in theater on both sides of the Atlantic, Robeson had established himself as an international actor and singer. Yet, he had rejected multiple offers to work on Hollywood movies and criticized his story in Tales of Manhattan for portraying Black people in a negative light.
An advocate for racial and social issues, Robeson was outspoken and actively involved with American and world politics. Within the U.S. he condemned lynching and segregation and contributed his talents to the Allied efforts during World War II. During a speech that was requested by communists at the Paris Peace Congress, Robeson spoke out against the economic abuses of Black people in America and poor White people in Europe.
His words were inaccurately transcribed and published by the Associated Press resulted in a fervently hostile backlash. Unaware of how serious the situation had become back in America, Robeson delayed in providing an explanation that he’d been misquoted and his remarks taken out of context. Given Robeson’s visits to Russia and previous contact with communists, friends and foes alike rushed to condemn the once-beloved actor.
Leaders of the NAACP gave in to pressure to formally condemn Robeson as a means to distance themselves from communism. And Jackie Robinson, for whom Robeson had previously been an advocate, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in an attempt to erode Robeson’s influence in the Black community. Though it should be noted that Robinson didn’t seem to take issue with Robeson’s views on racial issues as much as his communist leanings.
Robeson was blacklisted which prevented him from working within the United States. His passport was also revoked which barred him from leaving the country to work abroad. A large concert was forced to be canceled when anti-civil rights extremists launched an attack on concert goers as they arrived at the venue. Despite the extremists going to the venue and instigating a riot, the press blamed communists for causing the fracas. Efforts were made to erase Robeson’s college football history by removing his name from the record books and destroying his highlight reels. The various attacks on Robeson’s career and reputation had a devastating effect on his income resulting in a decrease from $150,000 to less than $3,000 in one year.
When called before the HUAC Robeson stood his ground and informed the committee that he was a trained lawyer and had broken no laws before invoking the Fifth Amendment. In time Robeson’s passport was reinstated allowing him to travel abroad where he attempted to rebuild his career. Yet, the years-long struggle had robbed him of his talent and vigor plunging him into periods of deep depression. Robeson spent years unsuccessfully seeking help and treatment for his mental and physical issues.
Eslanda, his wife of 42 years died and it was around this time that he retired from public life. Paul Robeson spent his remaining years living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his sister until he died from a stroke on January 23, 1976, at the age of 77.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2020. “Paul Robeson.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. August 18, 2020. https://www.biography.com/musician/paul-robeson.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2009. “Singer, Actor, Athlete, Activist Paul Robeson Dies.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. November 16, 2009. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/singer-actor-athlete-activist-paul-robeson-dies.
- King, Gilbert. 2011. “What Paul Robeson Said.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. September 13, 2011. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-paul-robeson-said-77742433/.
- “Paul Robeson ~ Paul Robeson Biography.” 2006. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. August 26, 2006. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/paul-robeson-about-the-actor/66/.
- Whitman, Alden. 1976. “Paul Robeson Dead at 77; Singer, Actor and Activist.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. January 24, 1976. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/01/24/archives/paul-robeson-dead-at-77-singer-actor-and-activist-paul-robeson-the.html.
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