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Paul Robeson, the son of William Drew Robeson, a former slave, was born in Princeton, New Jersey on 9th April, 1898. Paul's mother, Maria Louisa Bustin, came from a family that had been involved in the campaign for African-American Civil Rights.
William Drew Robeson was pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church for over twenty years. He lost his post in 1901 after complaints were made about his "speeches against social injustice". Three years later Paul's mother died when a coal from the stove fell on her long-skirted dress and was fatally burned.
Paul's father did not find another post until 1910 when he became pastor of the St. Thomas A.M.E. Zion Church in the town of Somerville, New Jersey. Paul was a good student but was expected to do part-time work to help the family finances. At twelve Paul worked as a kitchen boy and later was employed in local brickyards and shipyards.
In 1915 Paul Robeson won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University. Blessed with a great voice, Robeson was a member of the university's debating team and won the oratorical prize four years in succession. He also earned extra money my singing in local clubs.
Paul Robeson, was a large man (six feet tall and 190 pounds) and excelled in virtually every sport he played (baseball, basketball, athletics, tennis). In 1917 Robeson became the first student from Rutgers University to be chosen as a member of the All-American football team. However, in some games Robeson was dropped because the opponents refused to play against teams that included black players.
In 1920 Robeson joined the Amateur Players, a group of Afro-American students who wanted to produce plays on racial issues. Robeson was given the lead in Simon the Cyrenian, the story of the black man who was Jesus's cross-bearer. He was a great success in the part and as a result was offered the leading role in the play Taboo. The critics disliked the play but Robeson got good reviews for his performance.
In 1921 Paul Robeson married Eslanda Goode, a histological chemist at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York. They were soon parted when Robeson went to England to appear in the London production of Taboo, whereas Goode took up her post as the first African American analytical chemist at Columbia Medical Centre.
When Paul Robeson arrived back in the United States he returned to his studies and completed his law degree in February 1923. On one occasion, a stenographer refused to work with him saying "I never take dictation from a ******". Robeson, who had recently joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), had a meeting with Louis William Stotesbury about this incident. Stotesbury sympathized with Robeson but told him that his prospects for a career in law were limited, as the company's wealthy white clients would be unlikely ever to agree to let him try a case before a judge, as they would fear it would hurt their case.
Paul Robeson decided to leave the legal profession and return to the theatre. He joined the Provincetown Theatre Group and after meeting Eugene O'Neill agreed to play in his play All God's Chillun Got Wings. News of the proposed production reached the press and the American Magazine, a journal owned by William Randolph Hearst, called for the play not to be shown. It especially objected to a scene where a white actress kissed Robeson's hand. Another scene that showed black and white children playing together also caused controversy.
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The production went ahead and Robeson received tremendous reviews for his performance. George J. Nathan in the American Mercury wrote that Robeson "with relatively little experience and with no training to speak of, is one of the most thoroughly eloquent, impressive, and convincing actors that I have looked at and listened to in almost twenty years of professional theatre." The play eventually closed in October 1924 after a hundred performances.
Paul Robeson became increasingly concerned with the issue of civil rights. Two of his closest friends were Walter F. White and James Weldon Johnson, two leading figures in the NAACP. Interviewed by the New York Herald Tribune Robeson claimed that "if I do become a first-rate actor, it will do more toward giving people a slant on the so-called Negro problem than any amount of propaganda and argument.
In 1925 Robeson went to London to appear in Emperor Jones. In England he became close friends with Emma Goldman, an anarchist who had been deported from the United States after the First World War. In a letter Goldman wrote to Alexander Berkman, she said: "The more I know the man the greater and finer I find him". In another letter to Berkman she wrote about his "fine character, his understanding and his large outlook on life." She added: "I know few of our American friends among whites quite as humane and large as Paul." While in London he also met other radicals including Max Eastman, Claude McKay and Gertrude Stein.
On his return to the United States Robeson appeared in Black Boy and in January 1927 began a singing tour of Kansas and Ohio. This was followed by a concert tour of Europe and on his return took the role of Crown in the play Porgy, on Broadway in March 1928. This was followed by Show Boat in London where he performed Ole Man River. One critic, James Agate, of the Sunday Times, suggested that the producers cut a half-hour of the show and fill it with Robeson singing spirituals.
Following his success in Show Boat Robeson went on a concert tour of Europe. This included performances in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. On his return to London he began a campaign against racial discrimination after he was refused service at the Savoy Grill. The issue was raised with Ramsay MacDonald, the British prime minister, who although condemned the behaviour of the restaurant he claimed "I cannot think of any way in which the Government can intervene." It was later discovered that the Savoy Grill had refused to serve Robeson after complaints had been made about his presence by white American tourists staying in London.
In 1930 Paul Robeson appeared in Emperor Jones in Germany before taking the leading role in Othello in London. The play received a great deal of publicity as it included a scene where Robeson kisses a white actress, Peggy Ashcroft, who played the role of Desdemona. Despite the controversy he show was a great success and ran for 295 performances.
Paul Robeson also appeared in several films including The Emperor Jones (1933) and Sanders of the River (1935). Robeson was upset with the producers of Sanders of the River as he claimed that they had turned it into a pro-imperialist film. He later wrote that "it is the only one of my films that can be shown in Italy and Germany, for it shows the Negro as Fascist States desire him - savage and childish."
In 1935 Robeson and his wife Eslanda Goode, visited the Soviet Union. While there he met William Patterson, one of the leaders of the American Communist Party who was staying in Moscow at the time. They also met two of Eslanda's brothers, John and Frank Goode, who had decided they wanted to live in a socialist country.
Paul Robeson and his wife were impressed with life in the Soviet Union. They liked the improved status of women and the quality of care in the hospitals. Most of all they approved of the way that the minorities were treated in the country. He later wrote that in the Soviet Union he had felt "like a human being for the first time since I grew up. Here I am not a Negro but a human being. Before I came I could hardly believe that such a thing could be. Here, for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity."
On his return to the United States Robeson went to Hollywood to make a movie of Show Boat (1936). He followed this with the films: Jericho (1937), Song of Freedom (1937), Big Fella (1937) and King Solomon's Mines (1937).
Robeson was a strong supporter of the Popular Front government in Spain. On 24th June, 1937, Robeson spoke at a mass rally at the Albert Hall in London in aid of those fighting against General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist Army. In December 1937 he joined Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison, Ellen Wilkinson and other Labour Party leaders in speaking at another rally at the Albert Hall to attack the British government's Non-Intervention Agreement.
In January 1938 Robeson, Eslanda Goode and Charlotte Haldane visited the International Brigades fighting in Spain. While there he heard about Oliver Law of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion who had been killed at Brunete in July 1937. During the offensive Law became the first African-American officer in history to lead an integrated military force. Robeson decided to make a film about Law and "all of the American Negro comrades who have come to fight and die for Spain." Over the next few years Robeson tried several times to raise the money to make the film. He later complained that "the same money interests that block every effort to help Spain, control the Motion Picture industry, and so refuse to allow such a story."
On his return to London he joined the left-wing Unity Theatre and appeared in Ben Bengal's play, Plant in the Sun, a story about white and black workers who combine forces during a strike. He also appeared in a play about Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution, with C. L. R. James at the Westminster Theatre.
Paul Robeson continued to be active in various political campaigns including the Spanish Aid Committee, Food for Republican Spain Campaign, National Unemployed Workers' Movement and the League for the Boycott of Aggressor Nations. On 27th June 1938, Robeson joined Stafford Cripps, Harold Laski and Ellen Wilkinson, at a rally at Kingsway Hall in favour of Indian Independence Movement.
A strong opponent of Adolf Hitler and his fascist government in Nazi Germany, Robeson was active in the League for the Boycott of Aggressor Nations. He joined the attacks on Neville Chamberlain and his Appeasement Policy but defended Joseph Stalin in his decision to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This resulted in Robeson being attacked by other figures on the left such as Claude McKay who saw Stalin as an unprincipled dictator.
In 1941 Robeson joined Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Vito Marcantonio in the campaign to free Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party, who had been sentenced to four years imprisonment for violating passport regulations.
At the beginning of the Second World War Robeson argued for the United States not to become involved in the conflict. His views changed after the German Army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. He now favoured United States intervention and a creation of a second front in Europe.
Paul Robeson also became an active member of Russian War Relief and along with Fiorello LaGuardia, Harry Hopkins and William Green at a rally on the subject at Madison Square Garden on 22nd July 1942. Robeson argued that the war offered the opportunity to bring an end to oppression and racial prejudice all over the world. At one rally in October 1943 he stated that "this is not a war for the liberation of Europeans and European nations, but a war for the liberation of all peoples, all races, all colours oppressed anywhere in the world."
Robeson continued to make films during the war. This included The Proud Valley (1940), in which he played a heroic miner in Wales and Tales of Manhattan (1942). Robeson was also involved in Native Land (1942), a film directed by Paul Strand. Robeson provided the narration and Marc Blitzstein the music.
In 1946 Robeson led a delegation of the American Crusade to End Lynching to see Harry S. Truman to demand that he sponsor anti-lynching legislation. He also became involved in the campaign to persuade African Americans to refuse the draft.
Robeson's political activities led to him being investigated by House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On one occasion, when Richard Nixon, a member of the HUAC, asked the actor Adolphe Menjou, how the government could identify Communists, he replied, anyone who attended Robeson's concerts or who purchased his records.
The government decided that Robeson and his wife, Eslanda Goode, were members of the American Communist Party. Under the terms of the Internal Security Act, members of the party could not use their passports. Blacklisted at home and unable to travel abroad, Robeson's income dropped from $104,000 in 1947 to $2,000 in 1950.
Paul Robeson finally agreed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He denied being a member of the American Communist Party but praised its policy of being in favour of racial equality. One Congressman, Gordon Scherer of Ohio, commented that if he had felt so free in the Soviet Union why he had not stayed there. Robeson replied: "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part just like you."
In 1958 the government lifted the ban it had imposed prohibiting Paul Robeson from leaving the United States. After obtaining his passport, Robeson moved to Europe where he lived for five years. He spent his time writing, travelling and giving public lectures. Paul Robeson, whose autobiography, Here I Stand, was published in 1958, died in Philadelphia on 23rd January, 1976.
His education was literary, classical, mine was entirely scientific; his temperament was artistic, mine strictly practical; he is vague, I am definite; he is social, casual, I am not; he is leisurely, lazy, I am quick and energetic. He is genial, easily imposed upon, mildly interested in everybody and very impractical; I am pleasant to a few people, affectionately and deeply devoted to a very few, and entirely unaware that anybody else existed. Paul could be rude or say no to anyone; I could relish being rude to anyone who deserved it. He likes late hours, I am an early bird; he likes irregular meals, they are the bane of my life; he likes leaving things to chance, I like making everything as certain as possible; he is not ambitious, although once having undertaken a thing he is never content until he accomplishes it as perfectly as possible; I am essentially and aggressively ambitious, I like to undertake things.
I thought that there was little prejudice against blacks in London or none but an experience my wife and I had recently has made me change my mind and to wonder, unhappily, whether or not things may become almost as bad for us here as they are in America.
A few days ago a friend of mine invited my wife and myself to the Savoy grill room at midnight for a drink and a chat. On arriving the waiter, who knows me, informed me that he was sorry he could not allow me to enter the dining room. I was astonished and asked him why. I thought there must be some mistake. Both my wife and I had dined at the Savoy and in the grill room many times as guests.
I sent for the manager, who came and informed me that I could not enter the grill room because I was a negro, and the management did not permit negroes to enter the rooms any longer.
The African people have an almost instinctive flair for music. This faculty was born in sorrow. I think that slavery, its anguish and separation - and all the longings it brought - gave it birth. The nearest to it is to be found in Russia, and you know about their serf sorrows. The Russian has the same rhythmic quality - but not the melodic beauty of the African. It is an emotional product, developed, I think, through suffering.
Like every true artist, I have longed to see my talent contributing in an unmistakably clear manner to the cause of humanity. I feel that tonight I am doing so. Every artist, every scientist, every writer must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. The battle front is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear. The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of this era is characterized by the degradation of my people. Despoiled of their lands, their culture destroyed, they are in every country save one (the USSR), denied equal protection of the law, and deprived of their rightful place in the respect of their fellows. Not through blind faith or coercion, but conscious of my course, I take my place with you. I stand with you in unalterable support of the government of Spain, duly and regularly chosen by its lawful sons and daughters. May your meeting rally every black man to the side of Republican Spain. The liberation of Spain from the oppression of fascist reactionaries is not a private matter of the Spaniards, but the common cause of all advanced and progressive humanity.
This is not a bolt out of the blue. Films eventually brought the whole thing to a head. I thought I could do something for the Negro race in the films; show the truth about them and about other people too. I used to do my part and go away feeling satisfied. Thought everything was O.K. Well, it wasn't. Things were twisted and changed - distorted. That made me think things out. It made me more conscious politically. Joining Unity Theatre means identifying myself with the working-class. And it gives me the chance to act in plays that say something I want to say about things that must be emphasized.
Tappy told me that Paul Robeson and Charlotte Haldane had arrived and he was overwhelmed with his own picture of Robeson singing in the snow on Christmas Eve. Apparently the whole front was silenced as he sang, and his voice floated through the mountain passes and into the trenches in the deep snow. Many of the lads were unable to control their emotions.
This swelling wave of lynch murders and mob assaults against Negro men and women represents the ultimate limit of bestial brutality to which the enemies of democracy, be they German-Nazis or American Ku Kluxers, are ready to go in imposing their will. Are we going to give our America over to the Eastlands, Rankins and Bilbos? If not, then stop the lynchers! What about it. President Truman? Why have you failed to speak out against this evil? When will the federal government take effective action to uphold our constitutional guarantees? The leaders of this country can call out the Army and Navy to stop the railroad workers, and to stop the maritime workers - why can't they stop the lynchers?
It has been alleged that I am part of some kind of international conspiracy. I am not and never have been involved in any international conspiracy or any other kind, and do not know anyone who is. My belief in the principles of scientific socialism, my deep conviction that for all mankind a socialist society represents an advance to a higher stage of life - that it is a form of society represents an advance to a higher stage of life - that it is a form of society which is economically, socially, culturally, and ethically superior to a system based upon production for private profit have nothing in common with silly notions about 'plots' and 'conspiracies.'
Paul Robeson Biography
Paul Robeson was the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man. He was an exceptional athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, and political activist. His talents made him a revered man of his time, yet his radical political beliefs all but erased him from popular history. Today, more than one hundred years after his birth, Robeson is just beginning to receive the credit he is due.
Born in 1898, Paul Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. His father had escaped slavery and become a Presbyterian minister, while his mother was from a distinguished Philadelphia family. At seventeen, he was given a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in four years and was his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School, and, in the early 1920s, took a job with a New York law firm. Racial strife at the firm ended Robeson’s career as a lawyer early, but he was soon to find an appreciative home for his talents.
Returning to his love of public speaking, Robeson began to find work as an actor. In the mid-1920s he played the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” (1924) and “The Emperor Jones” (1925). Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, he was a widely acclaimed actor and singer. With songs such as his trademark “Ol’ Man River,” he became one of the most popular concert singers of his time. His “Othello” was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, running for nearly three hundred performances. It is still considered one of the great-American Shakespeare productions. While his fame grew in the United States, he became equally well-loved internationally. He spoke fifteen languages, and performed benefits throughout the world for causes of social justice. More than any other performer of his time, he believed that the famous have a responsibility to fight for justice and peace.
As an actor, Robeson was one of the first black men to play serious roles in the primarily white American theater. He performed in a number of films as well, including a re-make of “The Emperor Jones” (1933) and “Song of Freedom” (1936). In a time of deeply entrenched racism, he continually struggled for further understanding of cultural difference. At the height of his popularity, Robeson was a national symbol and a cultural leader in the war against fascism abroad and racism at home. He was admired and befriended by both the general public and prominent personalities, including Eleanor Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Joe Louis, Pablo Neruda, Lena Horne, and Harry Truman. While his varied talents and his outspoken defense of civil liberties brought him many admirers, it also made him enemies among conservatives trying to maintain the status quo.
During the 1940s, Robeson’s black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 the persecution reached a climax when his passport was revoked. He could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Of this time, Lloyd Brown, a writer and long-time colleague of Robeson, states: “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.”
It was eight years before his passport was reinstated. A weary and triumphant Robeson began again to travel and give concerts in England and Australia. But the years of hardship had taken their toll. After several bouts of depression, he was admitted to a hospital in London, where he was administered continued shock treatments. When Robeson returned to the United States in 1963, he was misdiagnosed several times and treated for a variety of physical and psychological problems. Realizing that he was no longer the powerful singer or agile orator of his prime, he decided to step out of the public eye. He retired to Philadelphia and lived in self-imposed seclusion until his death in 1976.
To this day, Paul Robeson’s many accomplishments remain obscured by the propaganda of those who tirelessly dogged him throughout his life. His role in the history of civil rights and as a spokesperson for the oppressed of other nations remains relatively unknown. In 1995, more than seventy-five years after graduating from Rutgers, his athletic achievements were finally recognized with his posthumous entry into the College Football Hall of Fame. Though a handful of movies and recordings are still available, they are a sad testament to one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century. If we are to remember Paul Robeson for anything, it should be for the courage and the dignity with which he struggled for his own personal voice and for the rights of all people.
Paul Robeson’s Tragic Love of Russia
Paul Robeson thought his good friend, the poet Itzik Feffer, looked jittery when he expressed his inability to communicate freely through hand gestures. The hotel room, he indicated, was bugged. How was he doing? “Fine,” shrugged Feffer and slowly drew his hand across the throat. The encounter took place in June 1949, during Robeson’s triumphant post-war trip to Moscow, where on occasion of Alexander Pushkin’s 150 th anniversary he once again performed for his favorite and, according to him, the most responsive audience in the world – that consisting of the citizens of a country he sometimes considered his “second motherland,” the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Itzik Feffer had been part of the group of prominent Jewish Soviet intellectuals and artists (theater director Solomon Mikhoels and auteur Sergei Eisenstein among them) whom Paul Robeson had befriended before and during the war years and to whom he felt connected by an almost “mystical bond.” In 1949, Soviet Jews increasingly found themselves on the receiving end of a state-instigated vicious anti-Semitic campaign that would span the last years of Stalin’s rule and claim numerous victims, including Mikhoels and Feffer. Apparently Feffer was brought for the rendezvous with Robeson upon the latter’s request. The meeting was awkward, cognizant of the bugging devices the two exchanged pleasantries, then shook hands and parted their ways. Robeson hurried to the concert to delight his beloved Muscovites, Feffer was taken straight back to the prison cell to await his imminent execution. That night Robeson obliquely acknowledged the plight of Soviet Jews by performing a Yiddish song before the emotional and stunned Moscow audience. But he never publicly spoke of his perished friends again, never responded to the revelations of Stalin’s crimes, never allowed himself to criticize the regime that, according to his deepest conviction, safeguarded the interests of the downtrodden, especially his “own people”:
I have heard some honest and sincere people say to me, “Yes, Paul, we agree with you on everything you say about Jim Crow and persecution. We’re with you one hundred percent on those things. But what has Russia ever done for us Negroes?” And in answering this question I feel that I go beyond my own personal feelings and put my finger on the very crux of what the Soviet Union means to me—a Negro and an American. For the answer is very simple and very clear: “Russia,” I say, “the Soviet Union’s very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality, its fight in every arena of world conflict for genuine democracy and for peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation.”
This was most certainly personal. Paul Robeson first arrived in the Soviet Union in late 1934 via Berlin and, the record Moscow freeze notwithstanding, fell in love with the land and its people. By all accounts, including his own, he received an exceptionally warm reception, which stood in grotesque contrast to the harrowing experience of his layover in the rapidly nazifying Berlin. During that first visit the Robesons stayed at the famed Hotel National, in the suite that a year earlier had been used as the living quarters of America’s first ambassador in Moscow, William Bullitt. Robeson was familiar with the experiences of other African Americans who visited or resided in the Soviet Union during this era and whose experiences on such trips were almost universally and overwhelmingly positive. Poets Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, radicals George Padmore, Harry Haywood, Otto Huiswoud, and William Patterson, the great pan-Africanist W.E.B. DuBois, and even Robeson’s own brother-in-laws John and Frank – all sang praises for the Soviets’ determination to practice and enforce the colorblind internationalism professed by Lenin and his heirs. For black visitors (and due to his celebrity, for Robeson probably more than others) arrival in the Soviet Union was invariably accompanied by dizzying opportunities for social, economic, and in many cases even romantic fulfillment. A Jamaican-born toolmaker from Detroit Robert Robinson arrived in the Soviet Union at the height of the Great Depression and quickly found recognition as a respected and well-paid engineer and eventually member of the Moscow City Council. A twenty-something unemployed journalism major from Minneapolis Homer Smith (penname Chatwood Hall) came to occupy an important managerial position at the Moscow Post Office and gain some repute as a prolific and Soviet-friendly journalist writing for numerous African American publications back home. Black American leftists played prominent role in the Communist International (Comintern) and hobnobbed with the brightest stars of Soviet political firmament. A group of black agricultural experts trekked to Soviet Uzbekistan in 1931 and some of its member would go on to have illustrious research and managerial carriers in the Soviet Union. Invariably, in their letters home and memoirs, in their official testimonies, these sojourners spoke of a “dream come true,” of finding in Soviet Russia the veritable racial utopia that remained a distant and elusive promise in Jim Crow America.
If a humble Detroit factory worker or an unknown young journalist were accorded the VIP treatment upon their arrival in the Soviet Union, one can imagine the sort of reception reserved for an international celebrity of Robeson’s stature. And Paul Robeson apparently relished the veneration and not just for his own sake but for the sake of the millions of his black compatriots who were routinely denied equality and respect back in the “land of the free” and whom he sought to represent in the “land of the Bolsheviks.” Robeson’s vision, it seems, was as laser-sharp as it was narrowly focused: as far as he was concerned the Soviet Union’s main attraction lay in its revolutionary minority policies and the sustained attempts to eliminate the vestiges of racial prejudice and inequality. Hence his keen interest in the emancipation of the former Russian empire’s Jewish and Central Asian populations. He enjoyed his trip as a fêted artist and an intellectual but also as a black man treated with respect and even deference: “Here I am not a Negro but a human being. Before I came I could hardly believe that such a thing could be… Here, for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity.” As far as Paul Robeson was concerned the Soviet Union lived up to its egalitarian promise, to such an extent, in fact, that he did not hesitate to place his own son, Pauli, Jr., in a Soviet school.
Paul Robeson was relatively late to discover this ostensibly colorblind Shangri-La. Ironically, as his infatuation with the Soviet Union took root and deepened, other prominent African American intellectuals and leaders began to question the sincerity of Soviet ideological commitments. Throughout the late-1920s and early-1930s the Soviet Union went through a dramatic period of back-breaking (and, unbeknownst to some of its erstwhile champions in the West, horrifyingly bloody) transformations. From a backward agricultural society engaged in an unprecedented social experiment it evolved into an industrializing power, which was increasingly acting on the international arena less like the revolutionary utopia of its early years and more like a nation-state. Paul Robeson the artist was not particularly well attuned to the nuance of this transition, which was not lost on more astute and politically savvy observers — people like George Padmore or W.E.B. DuBois, who towards the end of the 1930s grew alarmed with the Soviet metamorphosis. The Great Terror that convulsed the Soviet society before the Second World War and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of its citizens made an impression on the small number of black Americans remaining in the country at the time (at least one of them, a flamboyant communist Lovett Fort-Whiteman, would perish in the Soviet Gulag). Many others were turned off by the Soviet decision to trade with Mussolini’s Italy just as it was invading Ethiopia and, in 1939, to conclude a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and partition Poland – a cynical foreign policy about-face that a stinging editorial in the NAACP publication The Crisis called the “great betrayal.” The era of a black-red romance was apparently drawing to an end. But not so for Paul Robeson.
Neither the Soviet Union’s collusion with Hitler nor its subsequent assaults on Poland and Finland and the annexation of the independent Baltic states shook Robeson’s “special bond” with Soviet Russia. It is probably not a coincidence that his popularity in the United States reached its height during the war years, when his affection for Russia presented no impediment to his career advancement – the Soviet Union was America’s ally. The situation would change most dramatically with the rise of the Cold War and the spread of the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the United States. Paul Robeson’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1949 came in the midst of his growing isolation and mounting professional difficulties at home, where he was increasingly finding himself at odds with the prevailing mood of anti-Communism. It was against this backdrop that one must consider his tragic encounter with the condemned poet Feffer and his refusal to publicly reveal the doubts that he undoubtedly harbored. Over the years Paul Robeson would be regularly called to task for this moral equivocation, which likely had as its sources both his frustration with what he saw as an irredeemably perverse state of race relations in the United States and an obsessive fear (probably stoked by some of his communist friends) of Western democracies spawning fascism. Indeed, upon his return to the United States, Robeson found himself the focus of an intense shaming campaign for his alleged call on African Americans not to fight against the Soviet Union. In August 1949, his concert in Peekskill, NY, became the site of a bloody riot and a few months later the State Department cancelled Robeson’s passport, effectively preventing him from traveling overseas. Subsequently his career suffered irrevocable damage, while the paranoid excesses of the Red witch-hunt served to confirm his worst apprehensions – the land of the brave was going to hell in a handbasket. Isolated, alienated, disparaged for his alleged lack of patriotism, handicapped in his ability to make a living, Robeson never quite recovered from the humiliations of this era. And as always with him, the Soviet Union remained the beacon of hope. In 1952, as his celebrity had faded in the States, Robeson received the USSR’s highest honorary distinction – the Stalin Prize.
Paul Robeson remained a beloved figure in the Soviet Union until his death, in 1976. While his public persona in the United States never quite recovered from the travails of the 1950s and as, following a mysterious illness he suffered on his visit to Moscow in 1961 (a persistent rumor claimed the disillusioned Robeson had attempted a suicide), he entered a protracted period of physical and psychological decline, his star continued to shine brightly across the eleven time zones of the Soviet Union. “We knew he suffered greatly because he was a black man in America his voice was the most beautiful thing in the world, everything stopped when he was singing on the radio,” remembered a Soviet contemporary. Even if he harbored private doubts about the Soviet project (and his son, among others, would later insist that he did) he never allowed for any public criticism of the USSR – the land of the grand experiment that gave him hope and dignity but also destroyed the lives of the millions of innocents, including some of his closest friends. And here lies the tragedy of Paul Robeson, a great man and artist whose despair over the indignities borne by black American citizens combined with his profound affection for the Russian culture to present him with a torturous moral dilemma that he ultimately failed to resolve.
 “Robeson Calls Russia ‘Second Motherland’,” New York Times (15 June 1949)
 Paul Robeson, Jr., “How My Father Last Met Itzik Feffer,” Jewish Currents (November 1981), pp. 4-8
 Paul Robeson, The Negro People and the Soviet Union (New York: New Century Publishers, 1950), p. 12
 Paul Robeson, quoted in Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 190
 “The Great Betrayal,” Crisis, vol. 46, no. 10 (October 1939)
 John Patrick Diggins, “I Walk in Dignity,” New York Times (12 February 1989)
Paul Robeson is best known as a world famous athlete, singer, actor, and advocate for the human rights of people throughout the world. Over the course of his career Robeson combined all of these activities into a lifelong quest for racial justice. He used his deep baritone voice to communicate the problems and progress associated with black culture and community, and to assist the labor and social movements of his time. He sang for multiracial and multiethnic peace and justice in twenty-five languages throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa.
Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, to Reverend William Drew Robeson, the pastor of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson. His mother was from a prominent local mixed-race family and his father was a former slave who escaped from a plantation before the Civil War. Robeson was the youngest of four children.
Robeson’s mother died when he was six and his father struggled to care for the two youngest children. By 1912 the family had moved to Somerville, New Jersey where the young Robeson already was a standout athlete and stage performer. He also preached in his father’s church.
In 1915 Robeson became the third African American student to enroll at Rutgers University. There he became an All-American Football player, received a Phi Beta Kappa key for his scholarship, and graduated as class valedictorian. Robeson entered the New York University Law School in 1919 and while there supported himself by serving as the assistant football coach at Lincoln University where he joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
Robeson left New York University Law School in 1920, moved to Harlem, and transferred to Columbia University Law School. He graduated from that institution in 1923 while playing professional football for the Akron Pros coached by Fritz Pollard. Robeson ended his professional football career in 1922. After getting a J.D., he briefly practiced law but decided to focus his career on the stage and screen. In December 1923 he landed the lead role of Jim in Eugene O’Neill’s play, All Gods Chillun Got Wings.
Over the next thirty years Robeson built a career in theater and music which he also saw as a way to battle racism. He starred in eleven films, including Body and Soul (1924), Jericho (1937), and Proud Valley (1939). In London, Robeson rose to international fame for his theatrical role in Othello (1944). In 1933 Robeson made film history by becoming the first African American to star in a major studio production, The Emperor Jones. He also took on controversial role such as Bosambo in Sanders of the River (1935). The film made him an international star but it also created a backlash because of its stereotypical portrayal of Africans. From that point, Robeson vowed to appear on screen and stage only in what he considered positive roles.
Around this time, Robeson began a decades-long association with the Soviet Union which he visited for the first time in 1934. While never admitting whether he joined the Communist Party, he continued to promote socialism and the Soviet Union even during the height of the Red Scare in the United States. With Max Yergan, Benjamin Davis, Jr., and Revels Cayton, he became one of the most consistent voices on the American Left.
During the 1940s Robeson challenged U.S. President Harry Truman to support an anti-lynching law, protested the growing Cold War, and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the U.S. and the USSR. In 1945, Robeson openly questioned why blacks should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism. Because of his outspokenness, he was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a Communist. The allegation almost destroyed his career. In 1950, the U.S. rescinded Robeson’s passport, leading him to an eight-year battle to regain it and his ability to travel abroad. During those years, Robeson studied Chinese, met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects for world peace, published his autobiography, Here I Stand, and sang at Carnegie Hall. In 1952 and 1953, he held two celebrated concerts at Peace Arch Park on the USA-Canadian border, singing to upwards of 40,000 people in both countries.
Robeson made a brief comeback as a stage performer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He also became involved in the growing civil rights movement in the U.S. during that period but his failing health stymied both his stage career and his political activism. After suffering from double pneumonia and a kidney blockage in 1965 he permanently retired from public life and lived in seclusion in Philadelphia. Robeson died in that city on January 23, 1976 following complications from a stroke. He was 77.
Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (New York: Beacon Press, 1958) Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: New Press, 2005) Paul Robeson Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 (New York: Wiley, 2001) Paul Robeson Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, Quest for Freedom, 1939-1976 (New York: Wiley, 2010).
Paul Robeson - History
Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel sing a duet
Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel sings “Ah Still Suits Me” from the film, Show Boat (1936).
Paul Leroy Robeson ( /ˈroʊbsən/ rohb-sən April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American singer and actor who was a political activist for the Civil Rights Movement. His advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with Communism, and criticism of the US brought retribution from the government and public condemnation. He was blacklisted, and to his financial and social detriment, he refused to rescind his stand on his beliefs and remained opposed to the direction of US policies.
Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he was a football All-American and class valedictorian. He graduated from Columbia Law School while playing in the National Football League (NFL) and singing and acting in off-campus productions. After theatrical performances in The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings he became an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance.
Robeson’s renditions of spirituals, broadcast in, and imported to, Great Britain, became part of popular music in Great Britain in the 20th century. His portrayal of Shakespeare‘s Othello was the first of someone of African descent to take the role in Great Britain, in an otherwise all-white cast, since Ira Aldridge‘s 19th century portrayal.
His father’s background as a former slave, and his personal awareness of social injustices transformed Robeson into a political activist. He became a supporter of the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War and then became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA). During World War II, he played Othello in America while supporting the country’s war effort. After the war ended, the CAA was placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (AGLOSO) and he was scrutinized during the age of McCarthyism.
Due to his decision to not recant his beliefs, he was denied an international visa, and his income plummeted. He settled in Harlem and published a periodical critical of US policies. His right to travel was restored by Kent v. Dulles, but his health soon broke down. He retired privately and remained recalcitrant to the policies of the US government until his death.
Early life – Childhood (1898–1915)
Paul Robeson was born in Princeton in 1898, to Reverend William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill. His mother was from a prominent Quaker family of mixed ancestry: African, Anglo-American, and Lenape. His father, William, escaped from a plantation in his teens and eventually became the minister of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1881. Robeson had three brothers, William Drew, Jr. (born 1881), Reeve (born c. 1887), and Ben (born c. 1893), and one sister, Marian (born c. 1895).
In 1900, a disagreement between William and white, financial supporters of Witherspoon arose with apparent racial undertones, which were prevalent in Princeton. William, who had the support of his entirely black congregation, resigned in 1901. The loss of his position forced him to work menial jobs. Three years later when Robeson was six, his mother, who was nearly blind, tragically died in a house fire. Eventually, William became financially incapable of providing a house for himself and his children still living at home, Ben and Robeson, so they moved into the attic of a store in Westfield, New Jersey.
William found a stable parsonage at the St. Thomas A. M. E. Zion in 1910, where Robeson would fill in for his father during sermons when he was called away. In 1912, Robeson attended Somerville High School, where he performed in Julius Caesar, Othello, sang in the chorus, and excelled in football, basketball, baseball and track. His athletic dominance elicited racial taunts which he ignored. Prior to his graduation, he won a statewide academic contest for a scholarship to Rutgers. He took a summer job as a waiter in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, where he befriended Fritz Pollard.
Rutgers University (1915–1919)
Robeson (far left) was Rutgers Class of 1919 and one of four students selected into Cap and Skull
In late 1915, Robeson became the third African-American student ever enrolled at Rutgers, and the only one at the time. He tried out for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team, and his resolve to make the squad was tested as his teammates engaged in unwarranted and excessive play, arguably precipitated by racism. The coach, Foster Sanford, recognized his perseverance and allowed him onto the team.
He joined the debate team and sang off-campus for spending money, and on-campus with the Glee Club informally, as membership required attending all-white mixers. He also joined the other collegiate athletic teams. As a sophomore, amidst Rutgers’ sesquicentennial celebration, he was insultingly benched when a Southern team refused to take the field because the Scarlet Knights had fielded a Negro, Robeson.
After a standout junior year of football, he was recognized in The Crisis for his athletic, academic, and singing talents. At what should have been a high point of his life, his father fell grievously ill. Robeson took sole responsibility to care for him, shuttling between Rutgers and Somerville. His father soon died, and at Rutgers, Robeson expounded on the incongruity of African-Americans fighting to protect America (in World War I) and not being afforded the same opportunities as whites.
He finished university with four annual oratorical triumphs and varsity letters in multiple sports. His play at end won him first-team All-American selection, in both his junior and senior years. Walter Camp considered him the greatest end ever. Academically, he was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and Cap and Skull. His classmates recognized him by electing him class valedictorian. The Daily Targum published a poem featuring his achievements. In his valedictorian speech, he exhorted his classmates to work for equality for all Americans.
Columbia Law School (1919–1923)
Robeson entered New York University School of Law in the fall of 1919. To support himself, he became an assistant football coach at Lincoln, where he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Harlem had recently changed its predominantly Jewish American population to an almost entirely African-American one, and Robeson was drawn to it. He transferred to Columbia Law School in February 1920 and moved to Harlem.
Already well-known in the black community for his singing, he was selected to perform at the dedication of the Harlem YWCA. He began dating Eslanda “Essie” Goode, a histological chemist at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital. After Essie’s coaxing, he gave his theatrical debut as Simon in Ridgely Torrence‘s Simon of Cyrene. After a year of courtship, they were married in August 1921.
He was recruited by Pollard to play for the NFL’s Akron Pros, while he continued his law studies. In the spring, he postponed school to portray Jim in Mary Hoyt Wiborg‘s Taboo. He then sang in a chorus in an Off-Broadway production of Shuffle Along before he joinedTaboo in Britain. The play was adapted by director Mrs. Patrick Campbell to highlight his singing. After the play ended, he befriended Lawrence Brown, a classically trained musician, before returning to Columbia while playing for the NFL’s Milwaukee Badgers. He ended his football career after 1922, and months later, he graduated from law school.
Theatrical ascension and ideological transformation (1923–1939) – Harlem Renaissance (1923–1927)
Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer, but he renounced a career in law due to extant racism. Essie, the chief histological chemist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, financially supported them and they frequented the social functions at the future Schomburg Center. In December, he landed the lead role of Jim in Eugene O’Neill‘s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which culminated with Jim metaphorically consummating his marriage with his white wife by symbolically emasculating himself. Chillun’s opening was postponed while a nationwide debate occurred over its plot.
Chillun’s delay led to a revival of The Emperor Jones with Robeson as Brutus, a role pioneered by Charles Sidney Gilpin. The role terrified and galvanized Robeson as it was practically a 90-minute soliloquy. Reviews declared him an unequivocal success. Though arguably clouded by its controversial subject, his Jim in Chillun was less well received. He deflected criticism of its plot by writing that fate had drawn him to the “untrodden path” of drama and the true measure of a culture is in its artistic contributions, and the only true American culture was African-American.
The popular success of his acting placed him in elite social circles and his ascension to fame, which was forcefully aided by Essie, had occurred at a startling pace. Essie’s naked ambition for Robeson was a startling dichotomy to his insouciance. She quit her job, became his agent, and negotiated his first movie role in a silent race film directed by Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul. To support a charity for single mothers, he headlined a concert singing spirituals. He performed his repertoire of spirituals on the radio.
Brown, who had become renown while touring with gospel singer Roland Hayes, stumbled on Robeson in Harlem. The two ad-libbed a set of spirituals, with Robeson as lead and Brown as accompanist. This so enthralled them that they booked Provincetown Playhouse for a concert. The pair’s rendition of African-American folk songs and spirituals was captivating, and Victor Records signed Robeson to a contract.
The Robesons went to London for a revival of Jones, before spending the rest of the fall on holiday on the French Riviera socializing with Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay. Robeson and Brown performed a series of concert tours in America from January 1926 until May 1927. During a hiatus in New York, Robeson learned that Essie was several months pregnant. Paul Jr. was born while Robeson and Brown toured Europe. Essie experienced complications from the birth, and by mid-December, her health had deteriorated dramatically. Ignoring her objections, her mother wired Robeson and he immediately returned to her bedside. Essie completely recovered after a few months.
Show Boat, Othello, and marriage difficulties (1928–1932)
Robeson played the stevedore “Joe” in the London production of the American musical Show Boat, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” became the benchmark for all future performers of the song. Some black critics were not pleased with the play due to its usage of the word nigger. It was, nonetheless, immensely popular with white audiences, and it gained the attendance of Queen Mary. He was summoned for a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace in honor of the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. He was befriended by MPs from the House of Commons. Show Boat continued for 350 performances and as of 2001, it remained the Royal’s most profitable venture. Feeling comfortable in London, the Robesons’ bought a home, at a later recipient of the English Heritage Blue Plaque, in Hampstead. He reflected on his life in his diary and wrote that it was all part of a “‘higher plan'” and “God watches over me and guides me. He’s with me and lets me fight my own battles and hopes I’ll win.” However, an incident at the Savoy Grill, wherein he was refused to be seated, sparked him to issue a press release portraying the insult which subsequently became a matter of public debate.
Essie had learned early in their marriage that Robeson had been involved in extramarital affairs, but she tolerated them. However, when she discovered that he was having an affair with a Ms. Jackson, she unfavorably altered the characterization of him in his biography, and defamed him by describing him with “negative racial stereotypes”, which he found appalling. Despite her uncovering of this tryst, there was no public evidence that their relationship had soured. In early 1930, they both appeared in the experimental classic Borderline, and then returned to the West End for his starring role in Shakespeare’s Othello, opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona.
Robeson became the first black actor cast as Othello in Britain since Ira Aldridge. The production received mixed reviews which pointed out Robeson’s “highly civilized quality [but lacking the] grand style.” Drawn into an interview, he stated that the best way to diminish the oppression African-Americans faced was for his artistic work to be an example of what “men of my colour” could accomplish rather than to “be a propagandist and make speeches and write articles about what they call the Colour Question.”
After Essie’s discovery of Robeson’s affair with Ashcroft, she decided to seek a divorce and they split up. While Jackson and he broached marriage, he returned to Broadway as Joe in the 1932 revival of Show Boat, to critical and popular acclaim. Subsequently, he received, with immense pride, an honorary master’s degree from Rutgers. Thereabout, his former football coach, Foster Sanford, advised him that divorcing Essie and marrying Jackson would do irreparable damage to his reputation. Jackson’s and Robeson’s relationship ended in 1932, following which Robeson and Essie reconciled, although their relation was permanently scarred.
Ideological awakening (1933–1937)
Robeson returned to the theatre as Joe in “Chillun” in 1933 because he found the character stimulating. He received no financial compensation for “Chillun”, but he was a pleasure to work with. The play ran for several weeks and was panned by critics, except for his acting. He then returned to the US for a lucrative portrayal of Brutus in the film The Emperor Jones. “Jones” became the first feature sound film starring an African American, a feat not repeated for more than two decades in the U.S. His acting was well-received, but offensive language in the script caused controversy. On the film set he rejected any slight to his dignity, notwithstanding the widespread Jim Crow attitudes. Although, the winter of 1932–1933 was the worst economic period in American history, he was unappreciative of the unfurling disaster.
Post-production, Robeson returned home to England and publicly criticized African Americans’ rejection of their own culture. His comments brought rebuke from the New York Amsterdam News, which retorted that his elitism had made a “‘jolly well [ass of himself].'” He declared that he would reject any offers to perform European opera because the music had no connection to his heritage. He enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies to study Swahili and Bantu, among other languages. His “sudden interest” in African history and its impact on culture coincided with his essay “I Want to be African”, wherein he wrote of his desire to embrace his ancestry. He undertook Bosambo in the movie Sanders of the River, which he felt would render a realistic view of colonial African culture. His friends in the anti-imperialism movement and association with British socialists led him to visit the USSR. Robeson, Essie, and Marie Seton embarked to the USSR on an invitation from Sergei Eisenstein in December 1934. During their trip, a stopover in Berlin enlightened Robeson to the racism in Nazi Germany, and on his arrival in the USSR, he promulgated the irrelevance of his race which he felt in Moscow.
When Sanders of the Rivers was released in 1935, it made him an international movie star. However, his stereotypical portrayal of a colonial African was seen as embarrassing to his stature as an artist and damaging to his reputation. The Commissioner of Nigeria to London protested the film as slanderous to his country, and Robeson henceforth became more politically conscious of his roles. In early 1936 he considered himself primarily apolitical, however he decided to send his son to school in the Soviet Union in order to shield him from racist attitudes. He then played the role of Toussaint Louverture in the eponymous play by C. L. R. James at the Westminster Theatre and appeared in the films Song of Freedom, Show Boat, Big Fella, My Song Goes Forth (a.k.a. Africa Sings), and King Solomon’s Mines. He was internationally recognized as the 10th-most popular star in British cinema.
Spanish Civil War (1937–1939)
Robeson would later write the struggle against fascism during the Spanish Civil War was a turning point in his life, transforming him into a political activist and artist. In 1937, he used his concert performances to advocate the Republican cause and the war’s refugees. He permanently modified his renditions of Ol’ Man River from a show tune into a battle hymn of unwavering defiance. His business agent expressed concern about his political involvement, but Robeson overruled him and decided that contemporary events trumped commercialism In Wales, he commemorated the Welsh killed while fighting for the Republicans, where he recorded a message which would become his epitaph:
“The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
After an invitation from J. B. S. Haldane, he traveled to Spain in 1938 because he believed in the International Brigades‘s cause. He visited the battlefront and provided a morale boost to the Republicans at a time when their victory was unlikely. Back in England, he hosted Jawaharlal Nehru to support Indian independence, wherein Nehru expounded on imperialism‘s affiliation with Fascism. Robeson reevaluated the direction of his career and decided to focus his attention on utilizing his talents to promote causes which he cherished. and subsequently appeared in Plant in the Sun by Herbert Marshall .
Political activism (1939–1958) – Outbreak of World War II (1939–1943)
Robeson leading Moore Shipyard Oakland, California workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, September 1942. Robeson himself was a shipyard worker in World War I.
After the outbreak of World War II, Robeson returned to the US and became America’s “no.1 entertainer”with Ballad for Americans, and The Proud Valley—the film he was most proud of. At the Beverly Wilshire, the only hotel in Los Angeles willing to accommodate him, he spent two hours every afternoon sitting in the lobby. When asked why, he responded, “To ensure that the next time Black[s] come through, they’ll have a place to stay.”
With Max Yergan, Robeson co-founded the CAA. The CAA provided information about Africa across the US, particularly to African-Americans. It functioned as a coalition that included activists from varying leftist backgrounds. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he participated in benefit concerts on behalf of the war effort.
He performed in Native Land, labeled “a Communist project” which was based on the La Follette Committee‘s investigation of the repression of labor organizations. He participated in the Tales of Manhattan, which he felt was “very offensive to my people”, and consequently he announced that he would no longer act in films because of the demeaning roles available to black[s]. He performed at the Polo Grounds to support the USSR in the war, where he met two emissaries from the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Solomon Mikhoels and Itzik Feffer, an NKVDinformant.
The Broadway Othello and political activism (1943–1945)
Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the Theatre Guild production of Othello (1943–4).
Robeson reprised his role of Othello at the Shubert Theatre in 1943 under the direction of Margaret Webster. Stage actress Uta Hagen played Desdemona, and José Ferrer played Iago. He became the first African-American to play the role with a white supporting cast on Broadway where it was immensely popular. Contemporaneously, he addressed a meeting of Major League Baseball (MLB) club owners and MLB Commissioner Landis in a failed attempt to have them admit black players. Subsequently, he toured North America with Othello until 1945, received a Donaldson Award and was awarded the Spingarn medal by the NAACP.
Onset of Cold War (1946–1948)
In 1946, he opposed a move by the Canadian government to deport thousands of Japanese Canadians, and he telegraphed President Truman on the Lynching in the United States of four African Americans, demanding that the federal government “take steps to apprehend and punish the perpetrators … and to halt the rising tide of lynchings. He led a delegation to the White House to present a legislative and educational program aimed at ending mob violence demanding that lynchers be prosecuted and calling on Congress to enact a federal anti-lynching law. He then warned Truman that if the government did not do something to end lynching, “the Negroes will.” Truman refused his request to issue a formal public statement against lynching, stating that it was not “the right time”. Robeson also gave a radio address, calling on all Americans of all races to demand that Congress pass civil rights legislation.
The CAA’s most successful campaign was for South African famine relief in 1946.
On October 7, 1946, he testified before the Tenney Committee that he was not a Communist Party member. The Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the CAA was placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (AGLOSO).
Robeson sang and spoke in 1948 at an event organized by the Los Angeles CRC and labor unions to launch a campaign against job discrimination, for passage of the federal Fair Employment Practices Act also known as Executive Order 8802, anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation, and citizens’ action to defeat the county loyalty oath climate.
In 1948, Robeson was preeminent in the campaign to elect Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who had served as Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Wallace was running on an anti-lynching, pro-civil rights platform and had attracted a diverse group of voters including Communists, liberals and trade unionists. On the campaign trail, Robeson went to the Deep South, where he performed for “overflow audiences… in Negro churches in Atlanta and Macon.”
Robeson’s belief that the labor movement and trade unionism were crucial to the civil rights of oppressed people of all races became central to his political beliefs. Robeson’s close friend, the union activist Revels Cayton, pressed for “black caucuses” in each union, with Robeson’s encouragement and involvement.
In 1948, he opposed a bill calling for registration of Communist Party members and appeared before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Questioned about his affiliation with the Communist Party, he refused to answer, stating “Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary.”
HISTORY OF PAUL ROBESON HOUSE
During the last years of a celebrated – and needlessly torturous – life, Paul Robeson came to live under the watchful eye of his sister Marian R. Forsythe in this three-story home at 4951 Walnut Street.
Paul Robeson at his 75th birthday party at the house in 1973.
Forsythe and her husband Dr. James Forsythe bought the house in the late 1950s and moved in with their daughter, Paulina. After Robeson’s wife Eslanda died in 1965, he visited his sister (her husband died in 1959) the following summer before returning to New York to live with his son Paul Jr. Forsythe was a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher and at 72 was four years older than her brother.
He had felt so comfortable in her home that instead of staying in New York, he returned to Philadelphia in the fall of 1966 to live with Marian.
“Paul had missed her and the warm happy surroundings of her home,” Charlotte Turner Bell wrote in her book “Paul Robeson’s Last Days in Philadelphia.”
“The thought of Sis always brings an inner smile,” Robeson wrote in his 1958 book “Here I Stand.” “… As a girl she brought to our household the blessing of laughter, so filled is she with warm good humor.”
Marian took great care of Robeson. She celebrated his birthday every year with a cake. In Philadelphia, she sat with him on the porch as Robeson waved hello to neighbors, many of whom likely did not know who he was or his significance. Soon after he arrived, Marian asked Bell to drop by a few times a week to accompany Robeson on piano.
With Bell at piano, he sang his favorite songs, including “Ol’ Man River,” “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “Water Boy.”
Marian and Paulina Forsythe
He recited “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson as she softly played “This Little Light of Mine,” him finishing his rendition by singing the song, Bell recalled in her book. He recited Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” as she played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” again singing the song himself at the end of the recitation.
“He would sit with his eyes closed while singing and a broad smile on his face,” Bell said in her book. “Most of the time he sang sitting by the piano.”
Bell was not the only one who played for Robeson. Elizabeth Arnold Michael, who lived in the same block with her husband Dr. E. Raphael Michael and their two daughters, “vocalized” with him, recalled her daughter Vernoca, now executive director of the Robeson House.
Her father, Vernoca added, was Robeson’s spiritual mentor.
Bell noted in her book that Robeson – who spoke or sang in at least 20 languages – sometimes read French and German newspapers to her and Marian, and translated the articles for them. He went out to the movies (he saw “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) or watched sports on television, according to Bell.
This was also a house where Robeson welcomed friends whom he had known for years, among them Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Harry Belafonte. Charles L. Blockson, who amassed a collection of African American history that is now housed at Temple University in Philadelphia, arrived, too, having met Robeson for the first time after he moved in with Marian.
Robeson’s health started to fail and his body became frail. On good days, he came down the stairs of the house from his second-floor bedroom to sit on the porch or inside the house. Other days, he remained in bed. His bedroom still has its original furniture.
Arcenia McClendon was a young teacher in her 20s, and she lived with her mother just around the corner. She’d see Robeson and Marian on the porch, and would wave to them. One day, he was not there and Marian mentioned that he was not feeling well and was in bed.
Marian invited her in to see him. When she got to his bedroom, McClendon nervously listened as Marian told him that he had a visitor. Robeson was silent then McClendon said she was from Laurel, MS.
“Leontyne Price,” Robeson said. Price, the famous soprano, was from Laurel, and Robeson had been one of her early benefactors.
Harry Belafonte and Vernoca L. Michael during an event at the Robeson Center at the Brunswick campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey.
This historic house – built in 1911 by architect E. Allen Wilson – sits among the people for whom Robeson agitated. He’d spent a large part of his life as a world-renowned and heralded singer and actor, but once he started speaking out about the injustices confronting African Americans and poor people all over the world, he was hounded by the U.S. government.
He was accused of having Communist leanings, and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 where he refused to answer the question of whether or not he was a Communist. The State Department revoked his passport, and it was later reinstated through the courts. The government’s relentless campaign robbed him of his livelihood and his health.
The FBI kept an open file on Robeson even while he lived in Philadelphia as an elderly man who was no longer active.
After Robeson died in 1976 and Marian a year later, the house was left to Paulina. It had been vacant for more than 12 years when the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance bought it in 1994. The alliance was formed in the 1984 to help satisfy the city’s need for more cultural institutions in its neighborhoods.
The alliance was looking for a place to carry out its mission, and the house where the famous Robeson once lived was ripe for a new purpose (squatters had already taken over it). The alliance bought the house and the attached twin, and sought the community’s advice on whether renovating it to be used for cultural events was the best use. The response was positive.
So the alliance under the direction of Frances P. Aulston, the driving force behind the house, went about restoring it as a legacy to Robeson, securing funding from a variety of sources. The restoration was mostly completed in 2015.
In 1991, the Paul Robeson House was declared a historical landmark by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. On the sidewalk in front of the house, a state historical marker was erected to tell the world of the historical significance of the house and Robeson himself.
In 2000, the house became an Official Project of Save America’s Treasures and is listed on the National Register for Historic Places. In 2005, it was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2004-2005 “Restore America” sites.
Today, the Paul Robeson House and Museum offers tours of an exhibit titled “Paul Robeson: Up Close and Personal” consisting of record albums, paintings, books, photos and other artifacts pertaining to the man. It also offers space for art shows, community meetings and other events.
Not far from the house, at 45 th and Chestnut Streets, is an oversized mural of Robeson that faces a high school bearing his name.
The house is one of several centers devoted to his life, including the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Rutgers University (where he was an All-American athlete), Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Pennsylvania State University and the Paul Robeson House of Princeton.
PAUL ROBESON, a brief biography
Born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Robeson was the youngest of five children. His father was a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family. Robeson's family knew both hardship and the determination to rise above it. His own life was no less challenging.
In 1915, Paul Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University. Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won 15 varsity letters in sports (baseball, basketball, track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. He received the Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society, and graduated as Valedictorian. However, it wasn't until 1995, 19 years after his death, that Paul Robeson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
At Columbia Law School (1919-1923), Robeson met and married Eslanda Cordoza Goode, who was to become the first Black woman to head a pathology laboratory. He took a job with a law firm, but left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He left the practice of law to use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture.
Paul Robeson - History
Paul Leroy Robeson ( ROHB -sən April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American bass baritone concert artist and stage and film actor who became famous both for his cultural accomplishments and for his political activism. Educated at Rutgers College and Columbia University, he was also a star athlete in his youth. He also studied Swahili and linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London in 1934. His political activities began with his involvement with unemployed workers and anti-imperialist students whom he met in Britain and continued with support for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War and his opposition to fascism. In the United States he also became active in the Civil Rights Movement and other social justice campaigns. His sympathies for the Soviet Union and for communism, and his criticism of the United States government and its foreign policies, caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
In 1915, Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College, where he was twice named a consensus All-American in football, and was the class valedictorian. Almost 80 years later, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He received his LL.B. from Columbia Law School while playing in the National Football League (NFL). At Columbia, he sang and acted in off-campus productions. After graduating, he became a figure in the Harlem Renaissance with performances in The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings.
Between 1925 and 1961, Robeson recorded and released some 276 distinct songs, many of which were recorded several times. The first of these were the spirituals "Steal Away" backed with "Were You There" in 1925. Robeson's recorded repertoire spanned many styles, including Americana, popular standards, classical music, European folk songs, political songs, poetry and spoken excerpts from plays.
Robeson performed in Britain in a touring melodrama, Voodoo, in 1922, and in Emperor Jones in 1925, and scored a major success in the London premiere of Show Boat in 1928, settling in London for several years with his wife Eslanda. While continuing to establish himself as a concert artist, Robeson also starred in a London production of Othello, the first of three productions of the play over the course of his career. He also gained attention in the film production of Show Boat (1936) and other films such as Sanders of the River (1935) and The Proud Valley (1940). During this period, Robeson became increasingly attuned to the sufferings of people of other cultures, notably the British working class and the colonized peoples of the British Empire. He advocated for Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA).
Returning to the United States in 1939, during World War II Robeson supported the American and Allied war efforts. However, his history of supporting civil rights causes and pro-Soviet policies brought scrutiny from the FBI. After the war ended, the CAA was placed on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations and Robeson was investigated during the age of McCarthyism. Due to his decision not to recant his public advocacy, he was denied a passport by the U.S. State Department, and his income, consequently, plummeted. He moved to Harlem and from 1950 to 1955 published a periodical called Freedom which was critical of United States policies. His right to travel was eventually restored as a result of the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles. In the early 1960s he retired and lived the remaining years of his life privately in Philadelphia.
Birth and Death Data: Born April 9th, 1898 (Princeton), Died January 23rd, 1976 (Philadelphia)
Date Range of DAHR Recordings: 1925 - 1940
Roles Represented in DAHR: bass vocal
Recordings (Results 1-25 of 70 records)
Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. "Robeson, Paul," accessed June 30, 2021, https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/102809.
Robeson, Paul. (2021). In Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/102809.
"Robeson, Paul." Discography of American Historical Recordings. UC Santa Barbara Library, 2021. Web. 30 June 2021.
June 12, 1956: Paul Robeson Testifies Before HUAC
On June 12, 1956, Paul Robeson testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where he was questioned about his political speech, associations, and party affiliation. Robeson was an acclaimed athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, lawyer, and — what was of interest to the rightwing politicians in U.S. government — an internationally-renowned political activist.
George Mason University’s History Matters resource explains:
In his testimony to a HUAC hearing, ostensibly convened to gain information regarding his passport suit, Robeson refused to answer questions concerning his political activities and lectured bigoted Committee members Gordon H. Scherer and Chairman Francis E. Walter about Black history and civil rights. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen’s right to travel could not be taken away without due process and Robeson’s passport was returned.
Mr. ARENS: Have you recently changed your mind about Stalin?
Mr. ROBESON: Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union, and I would not argue with a representative of the people who, in building America, wasted sixty to a hundred million lives of my people, Black people drawn from Africa on the plantations. You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about anybody, please.
Mr. ARENS: I am glad you called our attention to that slave problem. While you were in Soviet Russia, did you ask them there to show you the slave labor camps?
THE CHAIRMAN: You have been so greatly interested in slaves, I should think that you would want to see that.
Mr. ROBESON: The slaves I see are still in a kind of semiserfdom. I am interested in the place I am, and in the country that can do something about it. As far as I know, about the slave camps, they were Fascist prisoners who had murdered millions of the Jewish people, and who would have wiped out millions of the Negro people, could they have gotten a hold of them. That is all I know about that.
Mr. ARENS: Tell us whether or not you have changed your opinion in the recent past about Stalin.
Mr. ROBESON: I have told you, mister, that I would not discuss anything with the people who have murdered sixty million of my people, and I will not discuss Stalin with you.
Mr. ARENS: You would not, of course, discuss with us the slave labor camps in Soviet Russia.
Mr. ROBESON: I will discuss Stalin when I may be among the Russian people someday, singing for them, I will discuss it there. It is their problem.
Read the full testimony at George Mason University’s History Matters resource.
The Forgotten Fight Against Fascism
Article. By William Loren Katz. If We Knew Our History Series.
History textbooks celebrate the U.S. role in World War II — the “Good War.” But they neglect to alert students to the U.S. government’s failure to confront early fascist violence.
Robeson in Spain
Book – Non-fiction. By The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. 2009.
Booklet in graphic novel format on Paul Robeson’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.
Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson
Book — Non-fiction. By Barbara Ransby. 2013. 373 pages.
This biography of cosmopolitan anthropologist Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson explores her influence on her husband’s early career, their open marriage, and her life as a prolific journalist, a tireless advocate of women’s rights, and an outspoken anti-colonial and antiracist activist.
Scandalize My Name: Stories From the Blacklist
Film. Directed by Alexandra Isles. 2000. 60 minutes.
Documentary about the impact of the McCarthy era on African Americans in the film industry.
April 9, 1898: Paul Robeson Born
Paul Robeson was one of the most important figures of the 20th century. He was a “renaissance man” — an acclaimed athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, lawyer, and internationally-renowned political activist.
Sept. 4, 1949: Concert in Peekskill Attacked
Benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress with Paul Robeson was held in Peekskill, New York.
Paul Robeson - History
Paul Robeson by Gordon Parks, 1942 - Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
It was called the “greatest mobilization of police in the city’s history.” But the event that brought out hundreds of Hartford-area police to Keney Park was not a riot, not a strike—it was the November 15, 1952, concert by Paul Robeson.
The controversial actor and singer had played to 3,000 people in Hartford in 1945 at Bushnell Memorial Hall. This time, however, Robeson ran into stiff opposition as his supporters attempted to secure Weaver High School across from the park (now Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School). The performance was a benefit for the progressive electoral efforts of Connecticut’s Peoples’ Party.
Outspoken Performer Makes Enfield Home
Robeson was no stranger to the Hartford area. In 1940, he and his family bought a home, that became known as “The Beeches,” in Enfield. Robeson’s wife, Eslanda, enrolled in courses at the Hartford Seminary and was a featured speaker at the meetings of local organizations. Robeson’s long history of engaging in fights for racial equality, workers’ rights, and detente with the Soviet Union (decades before it became official US policy) followed him to Connecticut.
Editorial drawing of Paul Robeson by artist, Charles H. Alston, 1943 – National Archives and Records Administration
What infuriated his detractors most was Robeson’s refusal to condemn the Communist Party or to state whether or not he was a member. “Why do you not stay in Russia,” he was asked during a 1956 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Robeson replied:
Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
Performer-Activist Faces Red Scare and Racism
His left-leaning views—and high profile—made him an especially important target for those who had a stake in the status quo. He was hounded by the HUAC, spied on by the FBI, and denied a passport to tour abroad. His life was frequently threatened and his effigy was burned by the Ku Klux Klan. His every move garnered negative headlines at a time when Black people were otherwise largely invisible to the news media. “The persecution of Paul Robeson by the Government…has been one of the most contemptible happenings in modern history,” wrote W. E .B. Du Bois, noted intellectual, author, and civil rights activist.
The Hartford controversy stemmed directly from the August 1949 outdoor performance that Robeson had been scheduled to give in Peekskill, New York. Stirred by inflammatory press reports, the event turned into a wholesale attack on concert goers by hundreds of American Legion-led thugs. Rioters pulled men from their cars and beat them then they smashed and overturned the cars. The rioting went on for three hours before the state police arrived. No arrests were made. A second Peekskill concert was held two weeks later. Under heavy guard by union members and WWII veterans, Robeson defiantly sang. Leaving the concert, however, meant attendees had to run a gauntlet of bottles and stones from thousands of protestors who included, according to eyewitnesses, the police themselves. More than 85 scheduled Robeson concerts around the country were cancelled in the next year due to political pressure.
In Hartford, conservative veterans’ groups lined up to oppose the Robeson concert. City Council member John J. Mahon led the political effort to stop Robeson. Even the local teachers’ union petitioned the Council and the Board of Education to rescind the Weaver High permit.
Supporting Robeson’s right to appear was the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. Also backing his right to sing was city councilwoman Betty Knox and Board of Education president Lewis Fox.
The Hartford newspapers played a significant role in red-baiting Robeson and playing up the fears of violence. Early in the controversy, the Hartford Times ran a front-page article entitled “Robeson Among Guests at Red Embassy.” Letters to the papers warned Hartford people not to be “liberal with our freedom of speech when it comes to Communism.” When provocative questions from a local reporter angered Robeson, that, too, became a story. “Robeson Enraged as Party Membership is Questioned,” read the Hartford Times headline. Robeson’s anger was eloquent and pointed. “The white ruling class of America doesn’t like Negroes who stand up and talk back and fight for their rights,” he told the reporter.
In the end, Robeson did sing at Weaver High School, to an auditorium packed with 800 people. The audience called him back for six encores.
Steve Thornton has been a labor union organizer for 35 years and writes on the history of working people.