Paul Leroy Robeson (18981976), by Madame Yevonde, 1930s
Robeson, Paul Leroy (18981976), actor, singer, and political activist, was born on 9 April 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. He was the youngest of five children and fourth son of William Drew Robeson (18451918), a former runaway slave and Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Maria Louisa Bustill (18531904), a former teacher. In 1915 he won a scholarship to Rutgers College, New Jersey, and was also educated at Columbia University law school, where he graduated in 1923. An outstanding athlete as well as scholar, Robeson was selected for the All-American college football team as the finest player in his position. For a short time thereafter he played professional football and semi-professional basketball. In 1921 he married his lifelong partner, Eslanda Cordozo Goode (18961965), an analytical chemist in a hospital pathology laboratory. She would later manage Robeson's career, and even though their relationship was often stormy and included periods of separation, she was initially a major influence in his life and the author of an early biography, Paul Robeson, Negro (1930).
Robeson began his acting career in 1920, appearing in Simon the Cyrenian in Harlem, New York, and played his first professional part in 1922 in Taboo. It was in 1922 as a member of the cast of this play, now renamed Voodoo, that Robeson made his début in Britain. In later years he recalled that it was during his performances in Voodoo at the Blackpool Opera House in 1922 that he first realized he had the talent to make a career as a singer. In 1923 he briefly worked at a law firm in New York, but his experiences of racism in the USA persuaded Robeson that he might have more success as an actor than by attempting to practise as a lawyer.
In the United States, Robeson continued to develop his singing career, and with Lawrence Brown, who was to be his accompanist for many years, he performed the first ever concert comprising entirely African-American secular songs and spirituals in New York in 1925. Later that year he began his legendary recording career, and during the next thirty-five years made over 450 recordings, mainly in Britain and the United States. The previous year he had made his first film, Body and Soul, directed by Oscar Micheaux. During the next twenty-five years he starred in ten films and twelve plays and musicals. As an actor he always strove to break away from the demeaning roles often played by black actors. By 1947 he had decided to leave the professional stage in the United States altogether; he had already ended his film career because of his dissatisfaction with the roles he was offered.
Robeson returned to Britain in 1925 to star in the play Emperor Jones, and three years later first sang Ol' Man River on stage in the London production of Show Boat. From 1928 and throughout the 1930s he and his family (his son Paul junior was born in 1928) made their home in London. He initially believed that racism was less of a problem in Britain than in the United States, but in 1929, in an infamous incident, he did become subject to the colour bar operated by the Savoy Hotel in London. He toured the country several times making stage and concert appearances, including his first and much acclaimed performance in Othello in 1930. Robeson made numerous recordings and some of his most memorable films in Britain, including Song of Freedom (1936) and The Proud Valley (1939). In the latter he played a black American stoker who helped Welsh unemployed miners reopen their pits.
In retrospect Robeson believed that his time in Britain had a profound influence on his personal and political development. As a result of his many contacts with students and other African residents, his serious interest in African cultures and languages developed. It was during this period that Robeson became patron of the West African Students' Union and, as he put it, discovered Africa in London. He also began his comparative study of African, African-American, and other folk cultures, and in 1934 enrolled as a student of linguistics and African languages at London University. He took a special interest in languages and mastered over twenty, including Russian and Chinese. In London, Robeson met those who were active in the anti-colonial struggle, such as Pandit Nehru, and those involved in the workers' movement. From this time he began to exhibit a growing interest in socialism, the international communist movement, and the Soviet Union, which he first visited in 1934.
From that time onwards Robeson began to take an active interest in politics. He subsequently repudiated some of his films, such as Sanders of the River (1934), which he viewed as glorifying British imperialism, and his search for more acceptable acting roles led him to the working-class Unity Theatre in London. He began to use his great talents to support political causes, including those of Jewish refugees from fascism and the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. By the late 1930s he had taken a clear political stand, as he stated in one of his most famous speeches made in London in 1937. The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative (Foner, 11819). His close contact with the miners of south Wales and other working people in Britain confirmed his belief in the oneness of humanity and influenced his choice of repertory. Increasingly he included folk and political songs from around the world, frequently sung in Russian, Chinese, and other languages. He also made a conscious decision to leave the concert stage and instead to appear in the theatres and venues frequented by working people. In 1937 he was voted the most popular radio singer in Britain.
During the Second World War and throughout most of the 1940s Robeson remained in the United States. By then world famous, he recorded his Ballad for Americans in 1940. In 19434 he starred in the long-running Broadway production of Othello. Despite temptations to abandon his political principles, Robeson maintained his refusal to perform before segregated audiences, and in this period stepped up his political activism. He became, among other things, chairman of the anti-colonial Council of African Affairs, co-chairman of the Progressive Party, and a leading figure in the American Crusade to End Lynching. He also played a prominent part in the attempts to free from prison Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party. In addition Robeson performed in support of the allied war effort, and in 1945 took part in an extensive overseas tour to perform to American troops stationed in Europe.
During the cold war Robeson continued to defend the Soviet Union and to condemn many aspects of American foreign policy including the war in Korea. At the same time he vigorously opposed racism in the United States, continued his support for anti-colonial and workers' struggles throughout the world, and made his contribution to the international peace movement. For this work he was awarded the international Stalin peace prize in 1952. His political stand led to increasing levels of FBI surveillance and attempts to stop him from speaking and performing. In 1949, following his remarks at the Congress of the World Partisans for Peace in Paris, he was subjected to organized attacks on his concerts at Peekskill, New York. He was eventually arraigned before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, and in 1950 the American state department confiscated his passport. Even during the period when he was unable to travel abroad and there were attempts to silence him, Robeson refused to be cowed or betray his political principles. He continued to speak out. In the 1950s, denied entry to Canada, he none the less sang at the famous Peace Arch concerts on the Canadian border and sent a telephone message to the 1955 Bandung conference. He also maintained his contact with friends and supporters in Britain who campaigned for the return of his passport. These included twenty-seven members of parliament, sections of the press, and leading musicians including Sir Adrian Boult.
In Manchester, a National Paul Robeson Committee was established in 1954 and rapidly spread to other towns and cities. In 1956 a taped message from Robeson was played to a packed audience in Manchester. In 1957 he broadcast live via a telephone link to a vast gathering in St Pancras town hall, and sang a programme in the same way for the miners' eisteddfod at Porth-cawl in Glamorgan. In 1958 Robeson published Here I Stand, an autobiography and political testament, and in the same year, following a worldwide campaign, his passport was finally returned.
Robeson returned to Britain in 1958 as soon as he could travel. In the next few years he gave many memorable performances, including those at St Paul's Cathedral and at the eisteddfod at Ebbw Vale in 1958, as Othello at Stratford in 1959, and his first television performance for Associated Television in 1958. He also appeared with some regularity at peace and disarmament rallies and at other political events in Britain. He continued to tour throughout Europe, the Soviet Union, and even in Australia and New Zealand. By the early 1960s Robeson's arduous life and effects of the persecution he had suffered began to take their toll. In 1963 he began a long period of semi-retirement in the United States. He died of a stroke on 23 January 1976 in Philadelphia, and was buried four days later in Ferncliff cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.
M. B. Duberman, Paul Robeson (1989) · L. Brown, The young Paul Robeson (1997) · A. L. Thompson, Paul Robeson: artist and activist (1998) · Paul Robeson speaks: writings, speeches, interviews, 19181974, ed. P. Foner (1978) · M. Seton, Paul Robeson (1958) · L. R. Gerlach, Robeson, Paul, ANB
Howard University, Washington, DC, family archives
Berlin, Germany, archive
BFINA, Paul Robeson, BBC, 26 Nov 1978
BFINA, Black on black, LWT, 23 April 1985
BFINA, Songs of freedom: Paul Robeson and the black American struggle, Mirus Productions, 3 June 1986
BFINA, Speak of me as I am, 7 June 1998
BFINA, Paul Robeson: here I stand, WNET, 1999
BFINA, advertising film footage
BFINA, current affairs footage
BFINA, documentary footage
BFINA, news footage
BFINA, performance footage
Educational and Television Films, London
BL NSA, performance recordings
J. Epstein, bronze bust, 1928, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC · Madame Yevonde, photograph, 193039, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, Hult. Arch. · photographs, priv. coll.