Paul Robeson, Entertainer and Social Activist

Paul Robeson was a renaissance man. Revered for his abilities on stage, on the football field, in the classroom and in the campaign for equal rights, Robeson’s fame never deterred him from engaging in outspoken social activism and expressing incendiary political opinions.

Paul Robeson’s Early Days

Born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, Paul Robeson grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, under the care of his father, a Presbyterian minister and former slave. Robeson’s mother died when he was five years old.

He was accepted to Rutgers College, where he played on the football, baseball, basketball, and track and field teams, earning All-America honors in football. He graduated as valedictorian and entered Columbia University School of Law.

After completing his degree in the early 1920s, he was hired by a New York law firm, but left after encountering racial bigotry from a coworker. Persuaded by his wife, Eslanda, Robeson decided to try his hand at acting and joined the Provincetown Players.

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Robeson’s Notable Accomplishments

Robeson’s acting was well received, and he moved quickly from small stage productions to important plays, musicals and movies. His performance of “Ol’ Man River” in “Show Boat” (1936) showcased his immense vocal talent. The bass voice swells and seems to carry the burden of oppression in the lyrics.

After a highly successful run of London theater, Robeson became a worldwide star, but he was not content to just be a celebrity. “Many black artists and entertainers at the time decided they could best gain the respect of their white fellow Americans simply by being good at their craft,” writes Hans Knight in The Baltimore Sun. “This was not Robeson’s way. He risked his career, and his life, to speak out stridently for human dignity and justice.”

Robeson spoke out against racial inequities and colonialism, and supported labor movements in the United States and internationally. His actions, considered radical in the 1930s and ‘40s, earned him both admirers and enemies. In particular, Robeson’s travels through the Soviet Union and his support of the communist system made him a target of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Robeson became the center of controversy when newspapers accused him of urging Americans not to fight if the Cold War came to a head. Due to the nature of his comments, Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950, restricting him from traveling outside of the United States.

While giving his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee on June 12, 1956, Robeson asserted: “You gentlemen belong with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

The Man and His Work

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Although Robeson’s passport was finally restored in 1958, the negative press had taken its toll on his career. His attempts to rejuvenate his career would fail, and so too did his health, driving the once lively Robeson to attempt suicide twice. After spending almost two decades banished from the spotlight, Robeson died from a stroke in 1976.

His accomplishments and influence on the civil rights movement and other progressive causes were largely ignored for years after his death. “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever,” says writer Lloyd Brown.