Background and Early Life
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, and he was a multi-lingual Black-American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, fellow traveler, Spingarn Medal winner and Stalin Peace Prize laureate.
Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., in 1898. His father, William Drew Robeson Sr., ran away from a North Carolina plantation where he had been born a slave. William later graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and became a church minister. Robeson’s mother, Maria Louisa Bustill, came from an abolitionist Quaker family. Paul's four siblings included: William Drew Jr., a physician who practiced in Washington, D.C.; Benjamin, a minister; Reeve and Marian, who lived in Philadelphia.
In 1915, Robeson graduated with honors from Somerville High School in Somerville, N.J., where he excelled academically and participated in singing, acting and athletics. Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers University. He was the third Black student accepted at Rutgers, and was the only Black student during his term on campus. Robeson was one of three classmates at Rutgers accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and one of four students selected in 1919 to Cap and Skull, Rutgers' honor society. He was also the class valedictorian, exhorting his classmates to "catch a new vision."
A noted athlete, Robeson earned altogether fifteen varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball and track and field. For his accomplishments as an end in football, he was twice named a first-team All-American, in 1917 and 1918. When he went out for the Rutgers football team, the other players beat him viciously, even pulling out his fingernails. He bore the abuse to prove his worth. His football coach, Walter Camp, later described him as "the greatest to ever trot the gridiron." Later in his life, however, when the government stopped him from traveling outside the country, his name was retroactively struck from the roster of the 1917 and 1918 college All-America football teams.
After graduation from Rutgers, Robeson moved to Harlem and entered Columbia School of Law. Between 1920 and 1923, Robeson helped pay his way through law school by working as an athlete and a performer. He played professional football in the American Professional Football Association, later named the National Football League, for the Akron Pros and then the Milwaukee Badgers. He served as assistant football coach at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he was initiated into the Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. In 1922, Robeson starred in the play Taboo in New York and in London. He graduated from Columbia University in 1923, in the same law school class as William O. Douglas, who became a United States Supreme Court Justice, and Robeson was hired at the law firm of Stotesbury and Miner in New York City. But he quit after a White secretary refused to take dictation from him because he was Black. Robeson later studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
He married Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Goode in August of 1921. She headed the pathology laboratory at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. Essie was related to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Robeson and his wife had one child, Paul Robeson Jr., born in 1927.
Fame Came Naturally
Robeson found fame as an actor and singer with his fine bass voice. He is one of the few pure basses in America, with his beautiful and powerful voice descending as low as C below the bass clef. In addition to his stage performances, his renditions of old spirituals were highly acclaimed as Robeson was the first to bring them to the concert stage.
His first stage roles were in 1922, playing Simon in Simon the Cyrenian at the YMCA and Jim in Taboo at the Sam Harris Theater both in Harlem, N.Y. He was acclaimed for his 1924 performance as the title role in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Robeson was also noted in his early career for his performance in All God's Chillun Got Wings in which he portrayed the Black husband of an abusive White woman who resents her husband's skin color so she destroys his promising career as a lawyer.
Next he played Crown in the stage version of DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy, which provided the basis for George and Ira Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess. Then, in 1930, he starred in the title role in Shakespeare's Othello in England, when no U.S. company would employ him for the part. He reprised the role in New York in 1943, and toured the U.S. with it until 1945. As of 2006, his Broadway run of Othello is the longest running play on Broadway of any Shakespeare plays. He won the Spingarn Medal in 1945 for that performance. Uta Hagen played Desdemona, and José Ferrer played Iago. He played the role of Joe, which was written for him, in the 1928 London production of Show Boat, and repeated his performance in the 1932 Broadway revival of the show, the 1936 film version and also a 1940 Los Angeles stage production. Robeson played the role of Toussaint L'Ouverture in a 1936 play by C.L.R. James, alongside actor Robert Adams. Robeson's repertoire of Black folk songs helped bring much attention to these works both within the U.S. and abroad, particularly with his rendition of "Go Down Moses." Robeson became interested in the folk music of the world. He became conversant in 20 languages and fluent or near fluent in 12 others. His standard repertoire after the 1920s included songs in many languages including, Chinese, Russian, Yiddish and German.
Between 1925 and 1942, Robeson appeared in 11 films, all but four of them British productions, after he and his wife moved to England in the late 1920s. He remained in the UK, but spent long periods away on singing tours, until the outbreak of World War II. At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Robeson became a major box office attraction in British films such as Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley. Briefly returning to the U.S. he reprised his title role in Dudley Murphy's film version of The Emperor Jones in 1933. The 1936, Universal’s film version of Show Boat was a box office hit for Robeson, and was the most frequently shown and highly acclaimed of all his movies. His performance of "Ol' Man River" for this film was particularly notable. He was Umbopa in the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines. In films such as Jericho and Proud Valley, he portrayed strong, Black-American male lead roles. Robeson left Britain during the WWII. It was later discovered that Robeson’s name was in The Black Book, a Nazi document listing thousands of people who lived in Britain and were considered a threat to Nazi war initiatives and beliefs and, thus, were to be arrested immediately.
Robeson toured and performed in Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War and was photographed with members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, including its Black commander, Oliver Law. His repertoire included “Peat Bog Soldiers,” which was popular with International Brigades, volunteers and veterans alike. Robeson was among the first performers to sing in concert on behalf of the U.S. troops during WWII.
Robeson's association with Wales began in 1928 while he was performing Show Boat in London. There, he met a group of unemployed miners who had taken part in a "hunger march" from south Wales to protest their situation. During the 1930s, Robeson made several visits to Welsh mining areas, and did performances in Cardiff, Neath and Aberdare. In 1934, he performed in Caernarfon to benefit the victims of an industrial accident, at the Gresford colliery, in which 264 miners were killed. In 1938, he performed in front of an audience of 7,000 at the Welsh International Brigades National Memorial in Mountain Ash, to commemorate the 33 men from Wales that were killed while fighting on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Robeson appeared in The Proud Valley, playing a Black laborer who wins the hearts of the local tribal people.
Robeson remains a celebrated figure in Wales. The exhibit “Let Paul Robeson Sing!” was unveiled in Cardiff in 2001, and toured several Welsh cities. A number of Welsh artists celebrated Robeson's life: The Manic Street Preachers' wrote a song for him called, "Let Robeson Sing," and the play Paul Robeson Knew My Father by Greg Cullen from the 1950s, features a character with a childhood obsession for Robeson's music and films. Martyn Joseph's song, “Proud Valley Boy” is also based on Robeson's Welsh fame.
On his frequent trips to Western Europe and the Soviet Union, Robeson grew highly critical of the conditions experienced by Black-Americans in the States, especially in the segregated southern states. Robeson was an activist against lynching. He pressed President Harry S. Truman aggressively on the issue in 1946, making remarks that implied black people would fight back to defend themselves if the government would not begin to protect them. Around that same time, he founded the American Crusade Against Lynching. Robeson‘s open advocacy for the Soviet Union, its foreign and domestic policies and support for Joseph Stalin in particular, made him an extremely controversial individual who was labeled a Communist and was frequently targeted by the U.S. and British public.
Robeson spoke out against the racist conditions experienced by Asian- and Black-Americans and he condemned segregation in both the North and the South. In 1948, Robeson was active in the presidential campaign to elect Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace, who had served as secretary of agriculture, vice president and the secretary of commerce in the administrations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the campaign trail in June of that year, Robeson went to Georgia, where he sang before "overflow audiences... in Negro churches in Atlanta and Macon."
At a Bill of Rights Conference in New York City on July 1949, a resolution was introduced calling for the freeing of all 19 Trotskyists convicted in 1941 under the provisions of the Smith Act. Robeson gave a speech denouncing this idea, saying that the imprisoned Socialist Workers Party members were “the allies of Fascism who want to destroy the new democracies of the world. Let’s not get confused, They are the enemies of the working class. Would you give civil rights to the Ku Klux Klan?" The resolution was defeated and Robeson's speech is credited with its defeat. Robeson biographer Martin Duberman commented that this "was not Robeson's finest hour."
Robeson became an increasingly unpopular figure with the political right during the Cold War and, in 1949, a planned concert in Peekskill, N.Y., to benefit the Civil Rights Congress, to be performed by Robeson, resulted in the Peekskill Riots. The original August 27 concert was postponed after concert-goers were attacked by an angry mob carrying baseball bats. The event was rescheduled for September 4 and 20,000 people attended, but the aftermath of the concert was marred by violence when a miles-long gauntlet of hostile locals, veterans and outside agitators threw rocks through the windshields of cars and buses, injuring 140 people.
Robeson's tireless involvement in dispelling the myths about the continent of Africa is a key aspect of his legacy as well as on of the reason for his relentless persecution by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI and right-wing politicians. A large aspect of Robeson's persecution was due to his fervent dedication to freeing Africa from the shackles of colonialism and exploitation.
Robeson, along with Mary Yergan in 1937, founded the Council on African Affairs. It was the first major U.S. organization created to focus was on supplying pertinent and up-to-date information about Africa to people in the States, and particularly to Blacks. During WWII , the Council functioned as a broad based coalition that included a variety of activists, some of whom were associated with the Communist Party. Probably the most successful campaign of the Council was for South African famine relief in 1946. Robeson, along with Essie, became an honorary members of the West African Students' Union in London during the 1930's, they met with African students Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, future presidents of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. The vilification of Robeson's work for African liberation reached its zenith when Hoover, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, arranged for a ghost written letter to be printed and distributed in Africa called, "Paul Robeson: Lost Shepherd," to turn African public opinion against Robeson.
After traveling around Europe for several years in the early 1930s, Robeson accepted an offer to visit the Soviet Union. While there, Robeson was given the red carpet treatment, according to biographer Martin Duberman, including trips to the theater, banquets and other special events. Robeson was captivated with this new society and its leadership, declaring "that the country was entirely free of racial prejudice and that Afro-American spiritual music resonated to Russian folk traditions. … Here, for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity.”
Through his writings and speeches, Robeson went on to defend the foreign and domestic policies of the Soviet Union and Stalin. During the Soviet purges, Robeson allegedly told a Daily Worker reporter that “from what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!” After North Atlantic Treaty Organization formed, Robeson proclaimed during a speech at the Paris World Peace Congress in 1949 that “It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations... against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” Professional Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson responded to this by saying that although he did not know Robeson, he would “punch him in the mouth” if he were to meet him. Even while many former left wing supporters of the Soviet Union learned of the atrocities being committed there and began publicly denouncing their former affiliations, Robeson held firm.
In March of 1950, NBC cancelled Robeson’s scheduled appearance on former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s television program, Today with Mrs. Roosevelt. A spokesman for NBC declared that Robeson would never appear on the station. Press releases from the Civil Rights Congress objected that "censorship of Mr. Robeson's appearance on TV is a crude attempt to silence the outstanding spokesman for the Negro people in their fight for civil and human rights," and that their "basic democratic rights are under attack under the smoke-screen of anti-Communism." Protesters picketed NBC offices and numerous public figures and organizations joined.
Because of the controversy surrounding him, all of Robeson's recordings and films were withdrawn from circulation. From then, until the late 1970s, it became increasingly difficult in the U.S., if not impossible, to hear Robeson sing on records or on the radio or to see any of his films, including Show Boat. As far as audiences knew in the late 1950s and 1960s knew, was there was only one film version of the show: the MGM Technicolor version of 1951 starring William Warfield not Robeson.
In 1952, Robeson was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. In April of 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, Robeson wrote a eulogy entitled, “To You Beloved Comrade,” in which he praised Stalin's "deep humanity," "wise understanding" and dedication to peaceful co-existence with all the peoples of the world calling him “wise and good.”
On July 8, 1943, , an event organized by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and was the largest pro-Soviet rally ever held in the U.S., Robeson met Solomon Mikhoels, the popular actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, and the Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer. Mikhoels headed the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in what was then the Soviet Union and Feffer was his second vice chair. After the rally, Robeson and his wife Essie entertained Feffer and Mikhoels.
Six years later, in June of 1949, during the 150th anniversary celebration of the birth of Alexander Pushkin, Robeson visited the Soviet Union to sing in concert. Concerned about the welfare of Jewish artists, Robeson insisted to Soviet officials that he meet with Feffer. Forced to communicate through hand gestures and notes because the room was bugged, Feffer indicated that Mikhoels had been murdered, in 1948, by the secret police. Feffer also indicated that many other Jewish artists had been arrested. Robeson responded publicly during his concert in Tchaikovsky Hall on June 14 by paying tribute to his friends Feffer and Mikhoels. He then sang the Vilna Partisan song "Zog Nit Keynmol" in both Russian and Yiddish. Upon returning to the States, however, Robeson denied the widespread persecution of Jews stating that he "met Jewish people all over the place... I heard no word about it.”
Robeson is often criticized for continuing to support the Soviet Union despite being aware of Soviet anti-Semitism. According to Joshua Rubenstein's book, Stalin's Secret Pogrom, Robeson justified his silence on the grounds that any public criticism of the USSR would reinforce the authority of anti-Soviet elements in the U.S., which, he believed, wanted a preemptive war against the Soviet Union.
His political statements and activism, including sympathies expressed towards the Soviet Union and Stalin, rumors of membership in the American Communist Party, and frequent trips to the Soviet Union, led to his being placed under investigated by the FBI, with orders from Hoover. Robeson was under surveillance by the FBI from 1941 to 1974, when the Bureau decided that "no further investigation [of Robeson] was warranted."
In 1946, Robeson was questioned by the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California. When he was asked whether he was a member of the Communist Party, Robeson replied that he might as well have been asked whether he was a registered Democrat or Republican, in the United States the Communist Party was equally legal, but, he added, he was not a Communist.
Ten years later, in 1956, Robeson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee after he refused to sign an affidavit affirming that he was not a Communist. In response to questions concerning his alleged Communist Party membership, Robeson reminded the Committee that the Communist Party was a legal party and invited its members to join him in the voting booth before he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to respond. Robeson lambasted committee members on civil rights issues concerning Blacks. When one senator asked him why he hadn't remained in the Soviet Union, he replied, "My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I'm going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?" At one point he remarked, "you are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves."
Historian Ronald Radosh argues that Robeson’s reputation as a "victim" of the HUAC’s investigation is unwarranted due to the extensive ties Robeson had with both the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, which was known to be actively involved in espionage against the United States.
In 1950, the State Department denied Robeson a passport and issued a "stop notice" at all ports, effectively confining him to the United States. When Robeson and his lawyers met with officials at the Department on August 23, 1950, and asked why it was "detrimental to the interests of the United States government" for him to travel abroad, they were told that "his frequent criticism of the treatment of Blacks in the U.S. should not be aired in foreign countries," it was a "family affair." When Robeson inquired about being re-issued a passport, the Department declined, citing Robeson’s refusal to sign a statement guaranteeing not to give any speeches while outside the U.S. Robeson's passport revocation was similar to that of other individuals that the State Department deemed pro-Soviet, including Howard Fast and Albert E. Kahn, W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Morford.
In a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the U.S. and Canada organized a concert at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia for May 18, 1952. Robeson stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border and performed a concert for a crowd on the Canadian side, variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people. Robeson returned to perform a second concert at the Peace Arch in 1953, and over the next two years, two further concerts were scheduled.
In 1956, Robeson left the U.S. for the first time since the travel ban was imposed, performing concerts in two Canadian cities, Sudbury and Toronto, in March of that year. The travel ban ended in 1958 and Robeson’s passport was returned to him.
That same year, Robeson's 60th birthday was celebrated in several U.S. cities and 27 countries. In May of 1958, his passport was finally restored and he was able to travel again, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Kent vs. Dulles, that the secretary of state had no right to deny a passport or require any citizen to sign an affidavit because of his political beliefs. As part of Robeson’s "comeback," was that he gave two sold-out recitals that month in Carnegie Hall, which were later released on CD. They would be his only stereo recordings to date.
In the late 1950s, Robeson moved to the UK and traveled extensively. He spent five years touring the world, playing Othello again in Tony Richardson's 1959 production in Stratford-Upon-Avon. He sang throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. On his visit to England, he befriended actor Andrew Faulds and inspired him to take up a career in politics. But Robeson had health problems during his travels, and spent some time in Russian and East German hospitals. And in 1961, Robeson attempted suicide in a Moscow hotel room. His son claimed this was precipitated by a CIA agent who placed some synthetic hallucinogens into his drink under a covert program called “MK Ultra.” Robeson moved back to the U.S. in 1963. For the remainder of his life he was plagued by poor health.
Over 3,000 people gathered in Carnegie Hall to salute Robeson's 75th birthday, including Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Pete Seeger, Angela Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Coretta Scott King. Birthday greetings also arrived from President Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania, Prime Minister Michael Manley of Jamaica, President Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Indira Gandhi, Arthur Ashe, Leonard Bernstein and the African National Congress. Robeson was unable to attend due to illness, but a taped message from him was played which said in part, "Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood."
In 1976, at the age of 77, Paul Robeson died of a stroke in Philadelphia, where he had been living with his sister. He was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, N.Y. Robeson's autobiography, Here I Stand, was eventually published by a British publishing company in 1958. Beginning in 1978, Paul Robeson's movies were finally shown on American television, with Show Boat making its cable television debut in 1983. In recent years, Robeson's silent films have appeared on the Turner Classic Movies channel.
Sources: Wikipedia.org; Wright, David K., Paul Robeson: Actor, Singer, Political Activist, Enslow Pub Inc, September 1, 1998; Stuckey, Sterling, I Want to Be African: Paul Robeson and the Ends of Nationalist Theory and Practice, 1919-1945, Univ of California Center for Afro, June 1, 1976; Stewart, Jeffrey C., Paul Robeson Cultural Center; Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen. Hardcover, Rutgers Univ Pr, April 1, 1998; Reiner, Carl, How Paul Robeson Saved My Life and Other Mostly Happy Stories, Cliff Street Books, October 1, 1999; Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. Beacon Press, 1958; McKissack, Pat, Fredrick McKissack, Paul Robeson: A Voice to Remember. Library Enslow Pub Inc, May 1, 2001; http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=FB0910FF3A5C0C758EDDA00894DA484D81; http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,717940,00.html; Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson, Alfred A. Knopf, New Press, 1988.
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