Who was Paul Robeson? One of the most talented people of the 20th Century, Paul Robeson excelled at everything from singing to professional football, from activism to acting. He was even valedictorian of his university!
About a year ago, I wrote an essay for one of my classes about Paul Robeson. In honor of black history month, I’m sharing an expanded version with you.
“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.” – Paul Robeson to the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1956. One of the most talented people of the 20th Century, Paul Robeson excelled at everything from singing to professional football, from activism to acting. He was even valedictorian of his university!
Who Was Paul Robeson ~ Early Life
Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of seven children! His parents were Maria Louisa Bustill and William Drew Robeson, who was an escaped slave. Robeson’s mother died when he was only six, after which his father moved the family to Somerville, New Jersey.
He excelled in school and sang in church. When he was 17, he earned a full scholarship to Rutger’s University, making him the third person of African descent to attend Rutger’s! While at Rutger’s University, he became one of the institution’s most decorated students. He received top honors for his debate and oratory skills. As well as winning 12 letters in four varsity sports! He was elected Phi Beta Kappa and became his class’ valedictorian.
Paul Robeson, College ~Early Jobs
After graduating, he attended Columbia University Law School from 1920 to 1923, teaching Latin and playing pro football on the weekends to pay tuition. Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer in 1923 but quickly left after encountering severe racism at his firm. With the encouragement of Eslanda, his wife, who would later become his manager, he turned fully to the stage.
Film and Theater
Some of Robeson’s early roles included the lead in the controversial 1924 production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings, in New York City. He went on to star in the London staging of The Emperor Jones.
Robeson entered film when he starred in the African-American director’s, Oscar Micheaux’s, 1925 film Body and Soul. Robeson had a major role in the 1928 London production of Show Boat, an adaptation of an Edna Furber novel. It was there that he first gained renown for singing Ol’ Man River, which would become his signature song.
In the late 1920s, he and his family moved to Europe, where he continued to establish himself as an international star in many big-screen features like Borderline (1930). He starred in the 1933 movie remake of The Emperor Jones. Robeson would play large parts in six British films over the next few years, including the desert drama Jericho and the musical Big Fella, both released in 1937.
Robeson also starred in the second movie adaptation of Show Boat (1936). Robeson’s final film would be the Hollywood production of Tales of Manhattan (1942). In the film, he starred alongside legends like Henry Fonda, Ethel Waters, and Rita Hayworth, but he criticized the film for its demeaning portrayal of Americans of African descent.
Paul Robeson’s Activism
Robeson’s activism started in 1934 by speaking out against racial injustice and becoming involved in world politics. Some of the movements and activities he participated in included Pan-Africanism, supporting, as well as singing for, Loyalist soldiers during Spain’s Civil War and striking Welsh miners, taking part in anti-Nazi demonstrations, and performing for Allied Forces during World War II.
Robeson visited the Soviet Union several times, starting in the mid-1930s. Partially because of a misrepresentation of a speech Robeson made at the U.S.S.R.-backed Paris Peace Conference in the late 1940s, as well as the House Un-American Activities Committee seeing a perfect opportunity to silence a voice who spoke out eloquently against racism and many other issues, Robeson was blacklisted by the McCarthy-cowed State Department in 1950.
Later Life ~ Death
Starting in 1958 when his passport was restored, he again traveled internationally and received many accolades for his work. But the damage had already been done because Robeson experienced debilitating depression and related health problems.
Robeson and his family returned to the United States in 1963. After Eslanda Robeson’s death in 1965, Paul Robeson lived with his sister. He later died from a stroke, on January 23, 1976, at the age of 77, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“The essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind.” – Paul Robeson. As you can see from that quote, he wasn’t just an amazingly talented person, he was a good person.
If you’re interested in learning more these are the websites where I did most of my research:
Paul Robeson and the Welsh miners:
The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939, by Paul Robeson, Jr: