Paul Robeson, Socialist Activist, Artist, Athlete; 1898 - 1976

Duane Townsend

Paul Leroy Robeson was born in 1898, the son of a runaway slave, William Drew Robeson. He grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, where he gained fame as one of the greatest football players ever, earning back-to-back first-team All-America honors in 1917 and 1918 at Rutgers University. But Robeson was a scholar as well. A member of the Rutgers honor society, Cap and Skull, he was chosen as valedictorian of his class, and after earning his bachelor’s degree, he worked his way through Columbia Law School while playing professional football. Although he had a brief stint at a New York law firm after graduating, Robeson’s voice brought him public acclaim. Soon he was starring on Broadway, as well as on the greatest stages around the world, in plays such as Shakespeare’s Othello and the Gershwin brothers’ Porgy and Bess. His resonant bass-baritone voice made him a recording star as well, and by the 1930s, he became a box office sensation in the film Show Boat with his stirring rendition of “Ol Man River.”

Yet Robeson, who traveled the world and was purported to speak more than a dozen languages, became increasingly active in the rights of exploited workers, particularly blacks in the South, and he associated himself with communist causes from Africa to the Soviet Union. After a visit to Eastern Europe in 1934, where he was nearly attacked by Nazis in Germany, Robeson experienced nothing but adulation and respect in the USSR—a nation he believed did not harbor any resentment or racial animosity toward blacks. “Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life,” he said. “I walk in full human dignity.”

When communists invited him to the stage at the Paris Peace Congress, Robeson was urged to say a few words after an enthusiastic crowd heard him sing. French transcripts of the speech obtained by Robeson’s biographer Martin Duberman indicate that Robeson said, ”We in America do not forget that it is on the backs of the poor whites of Europe…and on the backs of millions of black people the wealth of America has been acquired. And we are resolved that it shall be distributed in an equitable manner among all of our children and we don’t want any hysterical stupidity about our participating in a war against anybody no matter whom. We are determined to fight for peace. We do not wish to fight the Soviet Union. ” ...

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter