Paul Robeson: Biography, Quotes & Death

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Imagine a talented athlete, actor, and singer who spoke his mind and fought for civil rights. In his lifetime he was famous around the world, but he's largely unknown today. How can that be? Let's learn about the life of Paul Robeson.

Early Years, Accomplishments and Challenges

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an African American singer, actor, civil rights activist and writer. He was born the youngest of five children in Princeton, New Jersey, to a father who'd escaped slavery to become a clergyman and a mother from a Quaker family. Young Paul began singing in church choirs as a child and developed a love of public speaking. He was always academically focused, and at 17 went to Rutgers University on a scholarship. He became the third African American student ever to enroll at Rutgers, and the only one there at that time. He excelled there, earning fifteen varsity letters (he played baseball, football, basketball and ran track), winning awards in speech and debate, and ultimately becoming class valedictorian. He was also elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society.

Robeson went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University - and worked his way through school by playing professional football! Columbia is also where he also met fellow student Eslanda Goode. The two fell in love and married in 1921. After graduation Robeson got a job in a law firm, but encountered resistance there due to racism, and it proved insurmountable to a law career. He needed a different path, so he switched his focus to singing and performing. Blessed with a deep, rich baritone voice, he quickly found success.

Singing and Acting His Way to Fame

In 1924, Robeson starred in Eugene O'Neill's controversial play All God's Chillun Got Wings, which told the story of a relationship between a Black man and a Caucasian woman. The following year he played the lead role in the London production of another O'Neill play, The Emperor Jones. During this time, Robeson also began performing recital concerts of folk songs and African-American spirituals. And in 1928, he performed in a London production of Jerome Kern's musical Show Boat. His rendition of the dramatic song 'Ol' Man River' brought the house down. It also became one of his reoccurring anthems in concerts.

Portrait of Paul Robeson, 1938
paul robeson

His travels opened his eyes to a better life abroad. In the late 1920s, Robeson and his family moved to Europe, enjoying its more open and welcoming atmosphere to people of African descent. They stayed there for about a decade. Throughout the 1920s, Robeson sang and acted and became accomplished and successful on the stage and in movies. In 1936 he starred in a film adaptation of Show Boat. He performed throughout the world, giving concerts in far-flung places from Nairobi and Vienna to Budapest and Moscow. Through the 1940s, Robeson was one of the most famous performers in the world. He starred in eleven motion pictures, presented concerts and recitals, and entertained Allied forces during World War II.

Paul Robeson leading shipyard workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner in Oakland, California, 1942
paul robeson singing

Still, Robeson was an anomaly in America in an age of rampant segregation. He was a highly-educated, fiercely intelligent, accomplished and charismatic Black man determined and unafraid to speak his mind. And it would eventually cost him dearly.

Social Activism and Fallout

Always outspoken, Robeson was unwavering in his support of civil rights. He made several trips to the USSR, perhaps in naïve support for a culture he saw as more egalitarian (in later years, he disavowed Stalin's brutal tactics and atrocities). After World War II, Robeson was increasingly targeted for his activist beliefs. In 1949 he spoke at a Soviet-sponsored peace conference in Paris and as a result was labeled a traitor.

As fear of Communism spread, Robeson's avowed support and his outspokenness got him blacklisted, or targeted for a denial of common rights and privileges, by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the U. S. Congress. In 1950, the U. S. State Department refused to renew his passport, which made it impossible to travel abroad. Robeson fought for eight years to get it reinstated, and he refused to address the issue of his political stance. 'Whether I am or am not a Communist is irrelevant' he said in a 1956 hearing. 'The question is whether American citizens, regardless of their political beliefs or sympathies, may enjoy their constitutional rights.'

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