Paul Robeson, a Brief Biography

Paul Robeson was a famous African American athlete, singer, actor, scholar and advocate for the civil rights of people around the world. He rose to prominence in a time when segregation was legal in the United States, and black people were being lynched by racist mobs.

Born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Robeson was the youngest of five children. His father was a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family. Robeson’s family knew both hardship and the determination to rise above it. His own life was no less challenging.

In 1915, Paul Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers College. Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won 15 varsity letters in sports (baseball, basketball, discus, shotput, and javelin) and was twice named to the All-American football team. He received the Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society, and graduated as valedictorian. However, it wasn’t until 1995, 19 years after his death, that he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

At Columbia Law School (1920-1923), Robeson met and married Eslanda Cordozo 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 left the practice of law to use his considerable artistic talents in an acting and singing career.

In the 1920’s Paul Robeson performed Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings. In 1930 Robeson earned international acclaim for his role in Othello on a London stage, a role for which he later won the Donaldson Award for Best Performance (1944). Robeson played Joe in Showboat and was later to change some of the words of the song "Old Man River" from the meek ". . . I’m tired of livin’ and ’scared of dyin’. . . ." to a declaration of resistance, ". . . I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’. . . ." His 11 films included Body and Soul (1924), Jericho (1937), and Proud Valley (1939). Robeson’s travels taught him that racism was not as virulent in Europe as in the U.S. At home, it was difficult to find restaurants that would serve him and theaters in America would only seat blacks in upper balconies.

Paul Robeson used his deep bass-baritone voice to promote Negro spirituals, to interpret through song the cultures of other countries, and on behalf of 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, Asia and Africa. Known as a citizen of the world, he was equally comfortable with the people of Moscow, Nairobi, and Harlem. Among his friends were future African leader Jomo Kenyatta, India’s Nehru, historian Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, anarchist 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. At a 1937 rally for the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, he declared, "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." In 1938 Paul Robeson traveled to Spain and sang in hospitals and on the front lines to troops of the International Brigades. In New York, in 1939, he premiered in Earl Robinson’s "Ballad for Americans," a cantata celebrating the multi-ethnic, multi-racial face of America. It was greeted with the largest audience response since Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds.

During the 1940’s, Robeson continued to perform and speak out against racism, in support of labor, and for peace. He was a champion of working people and organized labor, speaking and performing at strike rallies, conferences, and labor festivals worldwide. As a passionate believer in international cooperation, he protested growing Cold War hostilities and worked tirelessly for friendship between the U.S. and the USSR. In 1946, he headed the American Crusade Against Lynching, challenging President Truman to support anti-lynching laws. In the late 1940’s when dissent was scarcely tolerated in the U.S., in a speech in Paris, Robeson openly questioned why African Americans would want to take up arms against anyone in the name of those who have oppressed them. Because of his outspokenness, he was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a Communist Party supporter. While he was indeed an advocate of socialism, he considered HUAC to have opposed the freedom of expression of those who worked for international friendship among nations and peoples.

The accusation nearly ended his career. Sixty of his concerts were cancelled, 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."

In 1950, the U.S. revoked Robeson’s passport, leading to an eight-year battle to resecure it and to travel again. 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. Two major labor-related events took place during this time. Beginning in 1952 the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers Union sponsored 4 annual Robeson concerts. They were held at Peace Arch Park at the U.S.-Canadian border with as many as 40,000 people in attendance. In 1957, Robeson performed a transatlantic radiophone concert from New York to coal miners in Wales. In 1960 he 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.

Around the centennial of the birth of Paul Robeson, April 9, 1998, hundreds of celebrations took place worldwide.


(Biography taken from the booklet Paul Robeson’s Living Legacy)