Paul Leroy Robeson (April
9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American bass baritone concert artist
and stage and film actor who became famous both for his cultural
accomplishments and for his political activism. Educated at Rutgers
College and Columbia University, he was also a star athlete in his
youth. He also studied Swahili and linguistics at the School of Oriental
and African Studies, London in 1934. His political activities began with his involvement
with unemployed workers and anti-imperialist students whom he met in
Britain and continued with support for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish
Civil War and his opposition to fascism. In the United States he also
became active in the Civil Rights Movement and other social justice
campaigns. His sympathies for the Soviet Union and for communism, and
his criticism of the United States government and its foreign policies,
caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
In 1915, Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College, where
he was twice named a consensus All-American and was the class
valedictorian. Almost 80 years later, he was inducted into the College
Football Hall of Fame. He received his LL.B. from Columbia Law School,
while playing in the National Football League (NFL). At Columbia, he
sang and acted in off-campus productions. After graduating, he became a
figure in the Harlem Renaissance with performances in The Emperor Jones
and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
Between 1925 and 1961, Robeson recorded and released some 276 distinct
songs, many of which were recorded several times. The first of these
were the spirituals “Steal Away” backed with “Were You There” in 1925.
Robeson’s recorded repertoire spanned many styles, including Americana,
popular standards, classical music, European folk songs, political
songs, poetry and spoken excerpts from plays.
Robeson performed in Britain in a touring melodrama, Voodoo, in 1922,
and in Emperor Jones in 1925, and scored a major success in the London
premiere of Show Boat in 1928, settling in London for several years with
his wife Eslanda. While continuing to establish himself as a concert
artist, Robeson also starred in a London production of Othello, the
first of three productions of the play over the course of his career. He
also gained attention in the film production of Show Boat (1936) and
other films such as Sanders of the River (1935) and The Proud Valley
(1940). During this period, Robeson became increasingly attuned to the
sufferings of people of other cultures, notably the British working
class and the colonized peoples of the British Empire. He advocated for
Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and became active in the
Council on African Affairs (CAA).
Returning to the United States in 1939, during World War II Robeson
supported the American and Allied war efforts. However, his history of
supporting civil rights causes and pro-Soviet policies brought scrutiny
from the FBI. After the war ended, the CAA was placed on the Attorney
General’s List of Subversive Organizations and Robeson was investigated
during the age of McCarthyism. Due to his decision not to recant his
public advocacy, he was denied a passport by the U.S. State Department,
and his income, consequently, plummeted. He moved to Harlem and from
1950 to 1955 published a periodical called Freedom which was critical of
United States policies. His right to travel was eventually restored as a
result of the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles.
In the early 1960s he retired and lived the remaining years of his life
privately in Philadelphia.