Today we will visit with the great athlete, actor, activist, lawyer singer and true American Hero Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson, a great American singer and actor, spent much of his life actively agitating for equality and fair treatment for all of America’s citizens as well as citizens of the world. Robeson brought to his audiences not only a melodious baritone voice and a grand presence, but magnificent performances on stage and screen. Although his outspokenness often caused him difficulties in his career and personal life, he unswervingly pursued and supported issues that only someone in his position could effect on a grand scale. His career flourished in the 1940s as he performed in America and numerous countries around the world. He was one of the most celebrated persons of his time.
Paul Leroy Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, the fifth and last child of Maria Louisa Bustill and William Drew Robeson. During these early years the Robeson’s experienced both family and financial losses. At the age of six Paul and his siblings, William, Reeve, Ben and Marian suffered the death of their mother in a household fire. This was followed a few years later with their father’s loss of his Princeton pastorate. After moving first to Westfield, the family finally settled in Somerville, New Jersey, in 1909, where William Robeson was appointed pastor of St. Thomas AME Zion Church.
Enrolling in Somerville High School, one of only two blacks, Paul Robeson excelled academically while successfully competing in debate, oratorical contests, and showing great promise as a football player. He also got his first taste of acting in the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello. In his senior year he not only graduated with honors, but placed first in a competitive examination for scholarships to enter Rutgers University. Although his other male siblings chose all-black colleges, Robeson took the challenge of attending Rutgers, a majority white institution in 1915.
In college between 1915 to 1919, Robeson experienced both fame and racism. In trying out for the varsity football team, where blacks were not wanted, he encountered physical brutality. In spite of this resistance, Robeson not only earned a place on the team but was named first on the roster for the All-American college team. He graduated with 15 letters in sports. Academically he was equally successful, elected a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society and the Cap and Skull Honor Society of Rutgers. Graduating in 1919 with the highest grade point average in his class, Robeson gave the class oration at the 153d Rutgers Commencement.
With college life behind him, Robeson moved to the Harlem section of New York City to attend law school, first at New York University, later transferring to Columbia University. He sang in the chorus of the musical Shuffle Along (1921) by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and made his acting debut in 1920 playing the lead role in Simon the Cyrenian by poet Ridgely Torrence. Robeson’s performance was so well received that he was congratulated not only by the Harlem YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) audience but also by members of the Provincetown Players who were in the audience. While working odd jobs and taking part in professional football to earn his college fees, Robeson met Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Goode. The granddaughter of Francis L. Cardozo, the secretary of state of South Carolina during Reconstruction, she was a graduate of Columbia University and employed as a histological chemist. She was the first black staff person at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. The couple married on August 17, 1921, and their son Paul Jr. was born on November 2, 1927.
To support his family while studying at Columbia Law School, Robeson played professional football for the Akron Pros (1920–1921) and the Milwaukee Badgers (1921–1922), and during the summer of 1922 he went to England to appear in a production of Taboo, which was renamed Voodoo. Once graduating from Columbia in 1923, Robeson sought work in his new profession, all the while singing at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. Offered an acting role in 1923 in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Robeson quickly took this opportunity; he had recently quit a law firm because the secretary refused to take dictation from a black person.
Although All God’s Chillun brought threats by the Ku Klux Klan because of the play’s interracial subject matter and the fact that a white woman was to kiss Robeson’s hand, it was an immediate success. It was followed in 1924 by his performances in a revival of The Emperor Jones, the play Rosanne, and the silent movie Body and Soul for Oscar Micheaux, an independent black film maker. In 1925 Robeson debuted in a formal concert at the Provincetown Playhouse. His performance which consisted of Negro spirituals and folk songs was so brilliant that he and his accompanist, Lawrence Brown, were offered a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Encouraged by this success, Robeson and Brown embarked on a tour of their own, but were sorely disappointed. Even though they received good reviews, the crowds were small and they made very little money. What Robeson came to know was that his talents in acting and singing would serve as the combined focus of his career.
Acting and Singing Career
Robeson’s acting career started to take off in 1928 when he accepted the role of Joe in a London production of Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. It was his singing of “Ol’ Man River” that received the most acclaim regarding the show and earned him a great degree of attention from British socialites. Robeson gave concerts in London at Albert Hall and Sunday afternoon concerts at Drury Lane. In spite of all this attention, Robeson still had to deal with racism. In 1929 he was refused admission to a London hotel. Because of the protest raised by Robeson, major hotels in London said they would no longer refuse service to blacks.
Much attention was given to Robeson’s acting and singing and he was embraced by the media. The New Yorker magazine in an article by Mildred Gilman referred to Robeson as “the promise of his race,” “King of Harlem,” and “Idol of his people.” Robeson returned briefly to America in 1929 to perform at a packed Carnegie Hall. In May of 1930, after establishing a permanent residence in England, Robeson accepted the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello. This London production at the Savoy Theatre was the first time since the performance of the great black actor Ira Aldridge in 1860 that a major production company cast a black man in the part of the Moor. Robeson was a tall, strikingly handsome man with a deep, rich, baritone voice and a shy, almost boyish manner. The audience was so mesmerized by his performance in Othello that the production had 20 curtain calls.
Accolades for outstanding acting and singing performances were prevalent during the 1930s in Robeson’s career, but his personal and home life were surrounded by difficulties. His wife Eslanda “Essie,” who had published a book on Robeson, Paul Robeson, Negro (1930), sued for divorce in 1932. Her actions were encouraged by the fact that Robeson had fallen in love and planned to marry Yolande Jackson, a white Englishwoman. Jackson, whom Robeson called the love of his life, had originally accepted his proposal but later called the marriage off. It was thought by some who knew the Jackson family well that she was strongly influenced by her father, Tiger Jackson, who was less than tolerant of Robeson and people of color in general. With his marriage plans cancelled, Robeson and his wife came to an understanding regarding their relationship, and the divorce proceedings were cancelled.
Robeson returned to New York briefly in 1933 to star in the film version of Emperor Jones before turning his attention to the study of singing and languages. His stay in the United States was a short one due to his treatment by the racist American film industries and because of criticism by blacks regarding his role as a corrupt emperor. Upon returning to England, Robeson eagerly immersed himself in his studies and mastered several languages. Robeson along with Essie became an honorary members of the West African Students’ Union, becoming acquainted with African students Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, future presidents of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. It is also during this time that Robeson played at a benefit for Jewish refugees which marked the beginning of his political awareness and activism.
Robeson’s inclination to aid the less fortunate and the oppressed in their fight for freedom and equality was firmly rooted in his own family history. His father William Drew Robeson was an escaped slave who eventually graduated from Lincoln College in 1878, and his maternal grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, was a slave who was freed by his second owner in 1769 and went on to become an active member of the African Free Society. Recognizing the heritage that brought him so many opportunities, Robeson, between 1934 and 1937 performed in several films that presented blacks in other than stereotypical ways. He acted in such films as Sanders of the River (1935), King Solomon’s Mines (1937) and Song of Freedom (1937).
On a trip to the Soviet Union in 1934 to discuss the making of the film Black Majesty, Robeson not only had discussions with the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein during his trip but was so impressed regarding the education against racism for schoolchildren that he began to study Marxism and Socialist systems in the Soviet Union. He also decided to send his son, nine-year-old Paul Jr., to school in the Soviet Union so that he would not have to contend with the racism and discrimination Robeson confronted in both Europe and America.
Robeson continued acting in films confronting stereotypes of blacks while receiving rave reviews for his success in singing “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 film production of Show Boat.He also embarked on a more active role in fighting the injustices he found throughout the world. Robeson co-founded the Council on African Affairs to aid in African liberation, sang and spoke at benefit concerts for Basque refugees, supported the Spanish Republican cause, and sang at rallies to support a democratic Spain along with numerous other causes. At a benefit in Albert Hall in London, Robeson is quoted in Philip Foner’s Paul Robeson Speaks as saying “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” This statement echoed a clear and focused direction of Robeson’s personal and professional life.
In 1939 Robeson stated his intentions to retire from commercial entertainment and returned to America. He gave his first recital in the United States at Mother AME Zion Church Harlem where his brother Benjamin was pastor. Later on in the same year Robeson premiered the patriotic song “Ballad for Americans” on CBS radio as a preview of a play by the same name. The song was so well received that studio audiences cheered for 20 minutes after the performance while the listening audience exceeded the response even for Orson Welles’s famous Martian scare program. Robeson’s popularity in the United states soared and he remained the most celebrated person in the country well into the 1940s. He was awarded the esteemed NAACP Spingarn Medal (1945) as well as numerous other awards and recognitions from civic and professional groups. In the American production ofOthello (1943), Robeson’s performance placed him among the ranks of great Shakespearean actors. The production ran for 296 performances–over ten months–and toured both the United States and Canada.
Robeson’s political commitments became foremost in his life as he championed causes from South African famine relief to support of an anti-lynching law; in September 1946 he was among the delegation that spoke with President Harry S Truman about anti-lynching legislation. The meeting was a stormy one as Robeson adamantly urged Truman to act, all the while defending the Soviet Union and denouncing United States’ allies. In October of the same year when called before the California Legislative Committee on Un-American activities, Robeson declared himself not a member of the Communist Party but praised their fight for equality and democracy. This attempt at branding him as un-American was successful in causing many to distrust his political commitments. Regardless of these events, Robeson decided to retire from concert work and devote himself to gatherings that promoted the causes to which he had dedicated himself.
In 1949 Robeson embarked on a European tour and in doing so spoke out against the discrimination and injustices that blacks in American had to confront. His statements were distorted as they were dispatched back to the United States. Although Robeson got mixed responses from the black community, the backlash from whites culminated in riot before a scheduled concert in Peekskill, New York, on August 27, 1949; a demonstration by veteran organizations turned into a full-blown riot. Robeson was advised of this and returned to New York. He did agree to do a second concert on September 4 in Peekskill for the people who truly wanted to hear him. The concert did take place but afterwards a riot broke out which lasted into the night leaving over 140 persons seriously injured. With such violence surrounding Robeson’s concerts, many groups and sponsors no longer supported him.
By 1950 Robeson had received by so much negative press that he made plans for a European tour. His plans were abruptly halted because the United States government refused to allow him to travel unless he agreed not to make any speeches. With no passport and denied his freedom of speech abroad, Robeson continued to speak out in public forums and through his own monthly newspaper, Freedom. Barred from all other forms of media, his own newspaper became his primary platform from 1950 to 1955. His remaining supporters encompassed the National Negro Labor Council, Council on African Affairs, and the Civil Rights Congress. The NAACP openly attacked Robeson while other black organization shunned him in fear of reprisals. Undaunted by these negative responses, Robeson traveled the United States encouraging groups to fight for their rights and for equal treatment. Even though he suffered from health as well as financial difficulties, Robeson held firm to his convictions and published in 1958 his autobiography Here I Stand through a London publishing house.
On May 10, 1958, Robeson gave his first New York concert in ten years to a packed Carnegie Hall. When the concert was over, he informed the audience that the passport battle had been won. From 1958 to 1963 Robeson traveled to England, the Soviet Union, Austria, and New Zealand. He was showered with awards and played to packed houses throughout his travels. After being hospitalized several times throughout his trip due to a disease of the circulatory system, Robeson returned to the United States. Much had changed since the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and school integration were in full enactment. Robeson was welcomed on his return by Freedomways, a quarterly review which saw him as a powerful fighter for freedom. A salute to Robeson was given in 1965 which was chaired by actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee along with writer James Baldwin and many other admirers.
Eslanda “Essie” Robeson died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 68 and Robeson went to live with his sister Marian in Philadelphia. He remained in seclusion until he died there on January 23, 1976; on his 75th birthday four days later a “Salute to Paul Robeson” was held in Carnegie Hall. Paul Leroy Robeson’s funeral was held at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem before a crowd of 5,000.
On February 24, 1998, Robeson received a posthumous Grammy lifetime achievement award. His honors are numerous, as Robeson’s life is being depicted through exhibits, film festivals, and lectures. Upon the centennial of his birth on April 9, 1998, at least 25 U.S. states and several countries worldwide hosted celebrations of his life and work in every conceivable manner.
Paul Robeson was truly a man who saw a commitment to the oppressed, and particularly black people, as a much more profound calling than the accolades he received for his astonishing talents. His extraordinary voice and engaging acting abilities would have undoubtedly brought him more fame, fortune, and approval than the activist role he pursed instead. It is because of this clear vision of justice that he is remembered as a great American and a great citizen of the world.
Thanks for your attention.