Before King dreamed, before Thurgood Marshall petitioned and Sidney Poitier emoted, before the big breakthroughs in Hollywood and Washington, before the Jim Crow signs came down, and before the Civil Rights banners went up, before Spike Lee, before Denzel Washington, before Jesse Jackson, there was… Paul Robeson!
Born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Leroy Robeson grew up the youngest of five children. His father was an escaped slave who became a Presbyterian minister while his mother came from a distinguished abolitionist Quaker family. At age 17, Robeson received an academic scholarship to Rutgers University, where, despite racism from his teammates, he excelled in sports, receiving multiple varsity letters (baseball, football, basketball and track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. He received his Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year and graduated as class valedictorian. He attended Columbia University Law School and, in the early 1920s, worked as a lawyer in New York. Racism at the firm drove him to leave the law profession, but he soon found success as a singer and actor.
As an actor, Robeson was one of the first Black men to play serious roles in the primarily white American theater. In 1924, he landed the lead in “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and the following year starred in the London staging of “The Emperor Jones,” both by playwright Eugene O’Neill. He became wildly popular as an actor and singer, and his star turn in Showboat in 1928 wowed London audiences with his rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” which was to become his signature song. The tune would also serve to help him become one of the most popular concert singers of his time. In addition, he performed in a number of films, including a re-make of “The Emperor Jones” (1933), “Song of Freedom” (1936) and the movie version of “Showboat” (1936). He became internationally well-known and beloved, and used that fame to fight for justice and peace.
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. Although admired and befriended by such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Louis, Harry Truman and Lena Horne, his outspoken defense of civil liberties sparked the ire of conservatives trying to maintain the status quo. Robeson regularly spoke out against racial inequality and injustice around the world. A champion of working people and organized labor, he performed at strike rallies, conferences and labor festivals worldwide. In the late 1940s, he openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the armed forces of a government that tolerated racism. A passionate believer in international cooperation, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly to build friendship and respect between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Because of his outspokenness, he was labeled a communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and was blacklisted from domestic concert venues, recording labels and film studios.
Eighty of his concerts were cancelled and the State Department barred him from renewing his passport in order to perform overseas. Though his passport was eventually reinstated eight years later, the damage was done. He suffered from depression and related health problems and died from a stroke in 1976 at age 77.
Paul Robeson with a young Julian Bond