Singer Paul Robeson testifies in Washington June 12, 1956, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, now probing possible use of passports by communists or fellow travelers. After a furious shouting session between the singer and Chairman Walter (D-PA) and other committee members, the group voted to cite Robeson for contempt. Later, Robeson told a reporter, “There was no contempt – I was just standing my ground.” (AP Photo/Bill Achatz)
Paul Leroy Robeson stands as one of the most accomplished African-American figures that sprung forth from the Harlem Renaissance movement early during the 20th Century. Excelling in both academics and athletics, Robeson would later take on singing and acting on his way to becoming an international sensation. As time went on, Robeson was briefly active in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and other human rights causes.
NewsOne celebrates Robeson’s day of birth, taking a moment to marvel over his many achievements.
Born on this day in 1898 in Princeton, N.J., to parents William and Anna, Robeson and his siblings would encounter tragedy early on. Robeson’s mother perished in a fire when he was six years of age, and his clergyman father uprooted the family to the town of Somerville. There, Robeson excelled in sports and was a standout student. The future actor caught the bug for the stage while at Somerville High School, and he also sang at his church. While he a multi-sport athlete, Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers University by way of a statewide contest, becoming only the third African-American to do so.
Robeson’s time at Rutgers was especially fruitful. He excelled in varsity sports, became an excellent orator, was elected Phi Beta Kappa and was the class valedictorian. After Rutgers, Robeson attended Columbia University’s Law School from 1920 to 1923 and earned his law degree. Marrying fellow Columbia student Eslanda Goode, Robeson worked for a spell as an attorney before racism drove him away. With the backing of his wife as his manager, Robeson took to the stage.
Landing the lead role in “All God’s Chilluns Got Wings,” Robeson’s name grew in the world of theater. Landing the posh role of Brutus in “The Emperor Jones” in production in London, Robeson was catapulted to a new stratosphere. Eslanda drove her husband to singing and acting. He landed a film role as well, after his wife negotiated on his behalf. Living in London for a spell, Robeson began to speak out against world injustice.
His travels took him to the Soviet Union, where he was enamored by the country and its communism political system. Robeson also supported pan-Africanism and did his best to be a champion for Blacks and other oppressed peoples. McCarthyism, the practice of accusing one of treason and conspiracy, coupled with the Cold War, singled out Robeson for his outspoken ways. Although world famous for his portrayal of Othello, he was labeled a Communist and was barred from obtaining a passport in 1950. Later, he was blacklisted from performing in domestic venues and studios.
In 1958, Robeson won the right to have his passport reinstated and was able to travel internationally again. However, his health had begun to deteriorate and he was never same again. That same year, he released his biography “Here I Stand” and continued to gain heavy praise for his work and activism. Joining the fight for civil rights in the early 1960s, Robeson was continually harassed by government officials and others who unjustly saw him as a traitor. Sticking true to his support of communism, the union between Robeson and the Civil Rights Movement did not pan out.
Robeson died on Jan. 23, 1976 at the age of 77, largely in seclusion. But he was said to still have the same fight for justice burning inside him. A taped quote played at Carnegie Hall during a tribute in 1973, Robeson left this eloquent message:
“Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”
Well said, Mr. Robeson. Happy day of birth and rest in powerful peace!