Were citizen historians or seat-of-the-pants historians. We came to this project with energy and stick-to-it-ism and certainly much love and respect for Paul Robeson. With the approaching 100th birthday of Paul Robeson (April 9, 1998), we realized that no one had a full sense of his involvement in the Chicago areaand we decided to begin this digging.
Our 4-year search began by speaking with some of our elderssome of the "old timers" who went way back with Paul Robeson. We started by speaking with Dr. Margaret Burroughs and Ishmael Flory and Timuel Black. The list of Robeson events in Chicago started with six notations. Next, we used the book Paul Robeson by Martin B. Duberman, the 1970 thesis on Robeson by Anatol Schlosser, and Prof. Lenwood Davis book, A Paul Robeson Research Guide. We looked up references to Chicago and The Chicago Defender, the main African American newspaper in Chicago. Our list expanded to 35 events!
Next came numerous calls and visitsto the Chicago Historical Society, the Chicago Park District, the Harold Washington Library Center and Orchestra Hall. Calls went out to dozens of institutions, high schools and local newspapers to follow up leads.
In microfilm archives of The Chicago Defender, we found ads for upcoming concerts and articles which reviewed Robesons performances. These gave us confirmation of an event with its date and location and also could provide a fuller understanding of that event and of the times in which the event was held. For example, by reading a review of an Orchestra Hall concert on January 30, 1932, we discovered that this concert was a fundraiser. The event was in support of Helping Hand Community Day Nursery, a center for "both white and Colored children whose mothers are employed."
By looking at Chicago Defender articles adjacent to ones on Robeson, we could read articles by W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. We read, "Indict 13 in Illinois Lynchings," July 3, 1943, where the East St. Louis sheriff was one of those implicated. We gained a deeper sense of the times in which Robeson lived and the events that motivated his activism. In reading the Duberman book we learned that in 1934 Paul Robeson passed up "an offer from the Chicago Opera to do two performances of Amonasro in Aida (at a thousand dollars a performance . . .)."
Over and over again we bumped into really interesting material but it was not germane to our Robeson/Chicago research. We have a very full "Future Projects" file! We were so fortunate to have access to 8 years of the Midwest DuSable edition of The Worker newspaper. It was full of Robeson material and so difficult to quickly scan the brittle pages and not get sidetracked by reading "non-Robeson" articles!
Eslanda Robesons family had much history in the Chicago area. Her father graduated from Northwestern University and her mother set up a business on the South Side of Chicago. Eslanda was a student at Lucy Flowers High School and the University of Illinois/Chicago. It was the retired archivist Archie Motley at the Chicago Historical Society who showed us dozens of her original letters and articles written for Claude Barnetts Associated Negro News Service. One day there will be a serious publication on Eslanda and her relationship with Paul Robeson. But our first task was to complete our Paul Robeson/Chicago research.
Eight months before completing this booklet, the FBI released 2,600 pages of its Robeson files on the Internet. A friend with a well built printer downloaded it. It was a huge task to find material pertinent to our research. How ironic it was to use information collected by the FBI and police in the 40s and 50s to help piece together Pauls history in Chicago! At Northwestern University we spent days looking through 9 reels of microfilm of a portion of the Robeson collection from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (N.Y. Public Library). It was packed with great material!
Rather than just a basic listing, we expanded certain descriptions when we had documentation that offered new insight into Paul Robeson. In a few instances we listed events that were cancelled. In each case tactics were used in an attempt to thwart the progressive viewpoint brought forward by Paul Robeson.
Our understanding of Robesons involvement in the Chicago area has become much richer. We found documentation about his pioneer performance of Negro Spirituals during his first concert at Orchestra Hall in 1926 and about his starring in Othello at the Erlanger Theater. We found a Chicago Tribune review of a concert where "Paul Robeson Wins Ovations From Throngs in Grant Park," on July 29, 1940, attended by 165,000 people! He and Joe Louis were cheered at the jam-packed American Negro Music Festival at White Sox Park in 1949.
During undergraduate school at Rutgers, Paul Robeson was the All-American football player. In order to pay for graduate school, he played professional football on weekends in cities including Buffalo, Syracuse, Akron, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. With the invaluable aid of volunteers we uncovered three football games in Chicago that starred a six-foot-three-inch, 230-pound Paul Robeson. One of those games was an All-Star game at the once-famous Schorlings Park at 39th and Wentworth Avenue. The other games were in 1921 at Normal Park, now the site of Paul Robeson High School.
When Paul Robeson came to town he would piggyback many events around a scheduled commercial engagement. In a few days, he might have been involved in eight or more events. So, while our listing has over 140 events, we estimate that we are missing 100 or more concerts or rallies. We learned that except for commercial events, Paul Robeson would volunteer his services. Most often these events were for causes that he sincerely believed in and supported.
In the Spring of 1996, the Chicago-based Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee found a welcome home at Columbia College Chicago and together accepted a most challenging mission. That mission began by alerting key individuals and organizations worldwide of the upcoming centennial of Paul Robeson. Next we identified already available resources such as books, plays, video and audio material. If new or updated resources were needed, we helped get them produced. Our Internet web site listed extensive resources for the study and celebration of Paul Robeson. A nationwide campaign for a Paul Robeson postage stamp was launched. We published the 24-page booklet, Paul Robesons Living Legacy by Barbara Armentrout and Prof. Sterling Stuckey. We wanted to bring back to life the concerns and campaigns and voice and energy of Paul Robeson.
Most young people have little or no knowledge of Paul Robeson. Certainly weaving the study of Robeson into school curricula was our ultimate goal. Hopefully students will find special interest in the fact that Robesons journey took him around the world and in and out of Chicago. How exciting it would be for students to see Paul Robeson as a role model.
All back-up documentation on this Robeson/Chicago history booklet will be placed in the archive of Columbia College Chicagos Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) and the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington D.C. All files and collecting by the Robeson Committee will be added to CBMRs Robeson collection. The public will have access to photos, press, playbills, books, unpublished theses and dozens of 78s, LPs and CDs. One gem in the collection is the 1943 Columbia Masterworks recording of Othellothe 3-volume set of seventeen 78s!
We invite students, scholars and other seat-of-the-pants historians to fill in the gaps. Help uncover additional events and old news articles, photos, playbills, speechesmaybe old recordings and film footage of our beloved Paul Robeson.
What we have compiled about Robesons Chicago history is something that needs to be pursued in numerous cities around the world. These diggings probably wont make it into future books on Paul Robeson, but will help fill in the knowledge of the giant contributions Paul Robeson made for a just and peaceful world!
We encourage you to share this publication with friends and familymany of whom will have fond memories of Paul Robesonand might have that Othello playbill still tucked away!
Joe Powers, Sr. - Retired government worker and activist
Mark Rogovin - Artist, founder of The Peace Museum and project coordinator of the Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee