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10 Things To Know About Activist Paul Robeson

10 Things To Know About Activist Paul Robeson

Robeson
10 Things to know about actor and activist Paul Robeson, who experienced highs and lows because of the strength of his voice. Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) thrived and suffered because of his voice. As an actor and singer, his deep bass-baritone made him an international star in the 1930s and ’40s. As an activist, his support for radical movements, especially his closeness to the Soviet Union, made him a target of anti-communist persecution. These are 10 things to know about Robeson.

He was the son of a former slave

Robeson’s father, William Drew, escaped from a North Carolina plantation to Pennsylvania through the Underground Railroad. He became a preacher in Somerville, New Jersey. 

He was the third African-American to attend Rutgers University

At 17, Robeson received a scholarship to attend Rutgers. There, he excelled in both academics and athletics. Robeson earned letters in four varsity sports, became a two-time All-American football player, received membership in Phi Beta Kappa — the oldest academic honor society in the U.S. — and graduated as his class valedictorian. 

He chose theater over law

Robeson earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1923. After experiencing racism in the field, however, he chose a career on the stage. 

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He became a star on the stage and in film

Robeson made himself a household name over the course of 20 years, thanks in part to his deep singing voice. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” for the London production of “Show Boat gained major acclaim. He played the title character in Shakespeare’s Othello in London and on Broadway, earning high praise for both. He starred in several movies from the early 1930s to 1942. 

He respected Russia and its culture

Robeson said of his visit to the USSR in 1934, “Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life. I walk in full human dignity.” He felt a cultural connection between African Americans and working-class Russians, which was strengthened by the respect he and his family received in Moscow. 

He was a left-leaning activist

Robeson used his voice to support pan-Africanism, Loyalist soldiers fighting in the Spanish Civil War, the Allied forces of World War II, and exploited workers all over the world. 

He was branded as a traitor due to a false quote

The Associated Press misquoted parts of a speech Robeson gave at the Paris Peace Congress. Robeson’s reputation, already controversial because of his association with the Communist USSR, suffered irreparable damage. The NAACP distanced itself from him, Jackie Robinson openly criticized him, and his career was effectively ruined

He was blacklisted and stripped of his passport

Due to his alleged communist ties, Robeson was blacklisted from any entertainment opportunities in the U.S. in 1950. The State Department seized his passport as well, preventing him from performing abroad. Unable to work, Robeson’s yearly income fell from $150,000 to under $3,000. 

He wrote an autobiography

Robeson published “Here I Stand” in 1958, the same year his passport was reinstated

His son worked to preserve his legacy

Robeson passed away in 1976, aged 77. His son Paul Robeson Jr. (1927-2014), a radical in his own right, dedicated his life to protecting his father’s legacy. Robeson Jr. famously led a campaign against playwright Phillip Hayes Dean over the depiction of his father in a 1977 play. He said of his father in 1993, “(He was) a hero in the sense that he dedicated his life to certain principles, to certain values, without fear of the consequences.”