By Srijan Sen
Born in Princeton, New Jersey, civil rights activist, actor, singer, lawyer and athlete, Paul Leroy Robeson was nothing short of a controversial American gem with a captivating history and distinct voice.
Rising to prominence during a time when segregation was legal in the United State and Black people were being lynched by racist mobs, especially in the South, Mr. Robeson became heavily involved with anti-imperialist efforts in response to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism.
“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice,” Mr. Robeson famously said.
A graduate of Columbia Law School and Rutgers College, Mr. Robeson was a strong political activist who regularly spoke out about social injustices and world affairs.
His affiliation with communism and criticism of the United States caused much uproar, eventually earning a spot on Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist during the red scare.
Crafting a comeback effort in his later life proved relatively successful, although ill health forced Mr. Robeson to retire from public life in 1963.
Being the youngest of five children, life was filled with challenges that Mr. Robeson sought to surmount.
His mother was from an abolitionist Quaker family who died from a fire when he was 6, while his father was a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University and became a clergyman.
The Robeson family knew both hardship and the determination to rise above it.
The young Robeson sang at church and excelled in academics earning a scholarship to attend Rutgers College at 17. In 1915, he became the third African-American to do so, pushing forward to be recognized as class valedictorian and one of the institution’s stellar students.
Despite violence and rampant racism from teammates, Mr. Robeson won 15 varsity letters in sports and was named to the All- American Football Team twice.
He went on to have brief one-year stints in the NFL career with Akron Pro’s (1921) and Milwaukee Badgers (1922).
However, in 1995, 19 years after his death, Paul Robeson was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
At Columbia, he met American anthropologist, author, actor and civil rights activist Eslanda Cordoza Goode who was to become the first Black woman to head a pathology laboratory and Robeson’s future wife.
The two remained married for more than 40 years, and in 1927, gave birth to son Paul Robeson Jr.
Severe racial division cut short Mr. Robeson’s career in law, but after quick revaluation of interests, he left the subjugating law firm to pursue an illustrious career in theatre and music.
In 1924, Robeson played lead in the production All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and the following year, he starred in the London staging of The Emperor Jones – both by renowned American playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Continuing to make waves in London, the screen adaptation of Showboat (1928) was his big comeback to the screen, where Mr. Robeson brought down the house with his now iconic song “Ol’ Man River.”
The family relocated to Europe for nearly a decade as Paul Robeson established a successful singing and film career, which included desert drama Jericho and the musical Big Fella.
His last movie would be the Hollywood production Tales of Manhattan (1942) – a film Mr. Robeson decried for its demeaning portrayal of African Americans.
As a beloved global figure, Paul Robeson devotedly promoted African, and African-American history and culture.
Championing the cause of organized labor, Mr. Robeson passionately believed in international cooperation, protesting the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly to forge a bond of friendship and respect between the U.S. and the USSR. Because dissent was rarely tolerated during this time in the U.S, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) questioned his intentions eventually labeling Mr. Robeson as a communist.
Unable to perform locally or travel abroad, the music career took a significant hit as Mr. Robeson began gradually receding from public view.
After eight years of protesting restrictions, his passport was reinstated for travel, but the damage was already done as debilitating depression and related health problems began taking hold.
Soon after his biography, Here I Stand was published in 1958; Mr. Robeson retired to Philadelphia in self-imposed seclusion until his death in 1976.
A man who sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the U.S., Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa, Mr. Robeson became known as a citizen of the world although his many accomplishments remain obscured by the propaganda of those who tirelessly dogged him throughout his life.
Known as much for a deep baritone voice to promote Black spirituals and share cultures of other countries as for the courage with which he struggled to establish his personal voice vocalizing the rights of all people, Paul Robeson is one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century whose lasting legacy triumphs a curtailed career.