Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee

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"My ancestors in Africa reckoned sound of major importance; they were all great talkers, great orators, and where writing was unknown, folk tales and an oral tradition kept the ears rather than the eyes sharpened. I am the same way. I always hear my way through the world."
- Paul Robeson 1936

Paul Robeson was a famous African American athlete, singer, actor and advocate for the civil rights of people around the world.  He rose to prominence in a time when segregation was legal in America and black people were being lynched by white mobs, especially in the South.

Born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Robeson was the youngest of five children.  His father was a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and his mother came from a family of Quakers who worked for the abolition of slavery. His family was familiar with hardship and the determination to rise above it.  His own life was no less challenging.

In 1915, Paul won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University.  In spite of open violence and racism expressed by teammates, Robeson won 15 varsity letters in sports (baseball, basketball, track) and was twice named to the All American Football Team.  He received the Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society and was the Valedictorian of his graduating class in 1919.  However, it wasn't until 1995, nineteen years after his death, that Paul Robeson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

At Columbia Law School (1919 to 1923), Paul met and married DR.Eslanda Cordoza Goode, who was to become the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory. He took a job with a law firm, but left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.  He decided to leave the practice of law and use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African American history and culture.

On stage in London, Robeson earned international critical acclaim for his lead role in Othello, winning the Donaldson Award for Best Acting Performance (1944) for his portrayal of Othello on Broadway.  Robeson performed in Eugene O'Neil's Emperor Jones, All God's Chillun Got Wings and the musical Show Boat.  He is known for changing the Show Boat song "Old Man River" from the lamentable lyrics "I'm tired of livin' and feared of dyin'," to a stronger and more political, "I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin'."  His eleven films include Body and Soul (1924), Jericho (1937) and Proud Valley (1939).

Paul noted that  his travels had taught him that racism was not as virulent in Europe as it was in the United States.  At home, it was difficult to find restaurants that would serve him; theaters in New York would only seat blacks in the upper balconies and his performances were often surrounded with threats or outright harassment.  In London, on the other hand, Robeson's opening night performance of Emperor Jones brought the audience to its feet with cheers for twelve encores.

Paul Robeson used his deep baritone voice to promote black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries and to benefit the social movements of his time.  He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union and the Third World.  Robeson became known as a citizen of the world, as comfortable with the people of Moscow and Nairobi as with the people of Harlem.  Among his friends he counted future African leader Jomo Kenyatta, India's Nehru, historian W. E. B. DuBois, anarchist Emma Goldman and writers James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.  In 1933, Robeson donated the proceeds of All God's Chillun to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany.  At a 1937 rally for anti-fascist forces fighting in the Spanish Civil War he declared, "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."  In New York, in 1939, he premiered in Earl Robinson's "Ballad for Americans," a cantata celebrating the multi-ethnic, multi-racial face of America.  It was greeted with the largest audience response since Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds."

During the 1940s, Robeson continued to perform and speak out against racism in the U.S. and for peace among nations.  As a passionate believer in international cooperation, Robeson protested the growing cold war hostilities and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the U.S. and the USSR.  In 1945, he headed an organization that challenged President Truman to support an anti-lynching law.  In the late 1940s, when dissent was scarcely tolerated in the U.S., Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated violent racism.  Because of his outspokenness, he was accused by the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a Communist.  Robeson saw this claim as an outright attack on the democratic rights of the many people like himself who work for friendship with other nations, and equal rights for all people.  This accusation nearly ended his career.  Eighty of his concerts were canceled, and in 1949 two outdoor concerts in Peekskill, N.Y. were attacked by white mobs while state police stood by complacently.  In response, Robeson declared, "I going to sing wherever the people want me to sing... and I won't be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else."

In 1950, the U.S. government revoked Robeson's passport, leading to an eight-year battle to secure it and to travel again.  During those years, Robeson studied Chinese, met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects for world peace, published his autobiography, Here I Stand and sang at Carnegie Hall.  In 1960, Robeson made his last overseas concert tour. Suffering from ill health, Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963.  He died on January 23, 1976 at age 77, in Philadelphia.

 


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