“Whether I am or not a Communist is irrelevant. The question is whether American citizens, regardless of their political beliefs or sympathies, may enjoy their constitutional rights.”
Athlete, Civil Rights Activist, Actor, Football Player, Singer, Lawyer
Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, to Anna Louisa and William Drew Robeson. Robeson’s mother died from a fire when he was 6 and his clergyman father moved the family to Somerville, where the youngster excelled in academics and sang in church.
When he was 17, Robeson earned a scholarship to attend Rutgers University, the third African American to do so, and became one of the institution’s most stellar students. He received top honors for his debate and oratory skills, won 15 letters in four varsity sports, was elected Phi Betta Kappa and became his class valedictorian.
Then, from 1920 to 1923, Robeson earned a degree from Columbia University’s Law School, teaching Latin and playing pro football on the weekends to pay tuition. In 1921, he wed fellow Columbia student, journalist Eslanda Goode. The two would be married for more than 40 years and have a son together in 1927, Paul Robeson Jr.
Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer in 1923, but left after encountering severe racism at his firm. With the encouragement of Eslanda, who would become his manager, he turned fully to the stage. In 1924, Robeson played the lead in the production All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and the following year, he starred in the London staging of The Emperor Jones.In the late 1920s, Robeson and his family relocated to Europe, where they lived for more than a decade. He established both a singing and film career, and his next big-screen feature was 1930’s Borderline. He was also in the 1933 movie remake of The Emperor Jones and would be featured in six British films over the next few years, including the desert drama Jericho and musical Big Fella, both released in 1937.
A beloved international figure with a huge following in Europe, Robeson regularly spoke out against racial injustice and was involved in world politics. He supported Pan-Africanism, sang for Loyalist soldiers during Spain’s civil war, took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations and performed for Allied forces during WWII. He also visited the Soviet Union several times during the mid-1930s, particularly taken with much of Russian folk culture and being treated with great dignity as an African American that he was often hard pressed to find in his home country. Robeson studied Russian, as did his son, who came to reside in the capital city of Moscow with his grandmother. Yet Robeson’s relationship with the U.S.S.R. became a highly controversial one during the Cold War. Fueled by the misrepresentation of a speech the actor made at the U.S.S.R-backed Paris Peace Conference in the late 1940s, Robeson was labeled a communist. Despite his immense popularity, he was blacklisted from domestic concert venues, recording labels and film studios and suffered financially.
Robeson published his biography, Here I Stand, in 1958, the same year that he won the right to have his passport reinstated. Robeson again traveled internationally and received a number of accolades for his work, but damage had been done, as he experienced debilitating depression and related health problems. Robeson and his family returned to the United States in 1963. After Eslanda’s death in 1965, the artist lived with his sister. Robeson died from a stroke on January 23, 1976, at the age of 77, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In recent years, some efforts have been made by various industries to recognize Robeson’s legacy after a period of silence and he was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame.