About Paul Robeson

Paul RobesonOn April 9, 1898 Paul Robeson was born to a former runaway slave father who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and a mother from an abolitionist Quaker family. In 1915, Robeson earned an academic scholarship to Rutgers University where he won 15 varsity letters, was twice named to the All-American Football Team, and graduated as Valedictorian. At Columbia Law School he 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 then began to use his talents in theater and music to promote African-American history and culture as well as advocate for civil and human rights in America and across the globe.

101111-national-Paul-Robeson-othelloIn London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello. His 11 films include Body and Soul (1924), Jericho (1937), and Proud Valley (1939). He used his talents to promote Black spirituals, and benefit the labor and social movements of his time. He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the U.S., Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. Among his friends were future African leader Jomo Kenyatta, India’s Nehru, historian Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Emma Goldman, and writers James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. In 1933, Robeson donated the proceeds of All God’s Chillun to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. In the 1940’s Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the U.S. and the USSR. In 1945, he headed an organization that challenged President Truman to support an anti-lynching law. In the late 1940s, Robeson openly questioned why African Americans 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 accusation nearly ended his career. Eighty of his concerts were canceled, and in 1949 two interracial outdoor concerts in Peekskill, N.Y. were attacked by racist mobs while state police stood by. Robeson responded, “I’m going to sing wherever the people want me to sing… and I won’t be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else.”

paul-robeson-350In 1950, the U.S. revoked Robeson’s passport, leading to an eight-year battle to re-secure it. 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 1960, Robeson made his last concert tour to New Zealand and Australia. In ill health, Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia, but his legacy lives on.