Paul Robeson

 

Portrait of Paul RobesonPaul Robeson (1898-1976) was an 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 the United States, and Black people were being lynched by racist mobs, especially in the South.

 

In 1915, Paul Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University. Despite violence and racism from team mates, he won 15 varsity letters in sports (baseball, basketball, track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team.

 

United States - stamp Paul RobesonAt Columbia Law School (1919-1923), Robeson met and married 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 left the practice of law to use his artistic talents in theatre and music to promote African and African-American history and culture.

 

In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello, and performed in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings. His 11 films included Body and Soul (1924), Jericho (1937) and Proud Valley (1939). Robeson's travels taught him that racism was not as virulent in Europe as in the United States. At home, it was difficult to find restaurants that would serve him, theatres 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.

 

German Democratic Republic - stamp of Paul Robeson 1983Paul Robeson used his deep baritone voice to promote Black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labour and social movements of his time. He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union and Africa. Robeson became known as a citizen of the world, equally comfortable with the people of Moscow, Nairobi, and Harlem. Among his friends were future African leader Jomo Kenyatta, India's Nehru, historian Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, 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 1934 rally for the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, he declared, "The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for 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."

 

Paul Robeson paintingDuring the 1940s, Robeson continued to perform and to speak out against racism, in support of labour, and for peace. He was a champion of working people and organized labour. He spoke and performed at strike rallies, conferences, and labour festivals worldwide. As a passionate believer in international cooperation, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the United States 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 United States, Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism. Because of his outspokenness, he was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a Communist. Robeson saw this as an attack on the democratic rights of everyone who worked for international friendship and for equality. The accusation nearly ended his career. Eighty of his concerts were cancelled, and in 1949 two interracial outdoor concerts in Peekskill, N.Y. were attacked by racist mobs while state police stood by. Robeson responded, "I'm 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 United States revoked Robeson's passport, leading to an eight-year battle to resecure 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. Two major labour-related events took place during this time. In 1952 and 1953, he held two concerts at Peace Arch Park on the United States-Canadian border, singing to 30.000 to 40.000 people in both countries. In 1957, he made a transatlantic radiophone broadcast from New York to coal miners in Wales.

 

UN gold medal against apartheidIn 1960, Robeson made his last concert tour to New Zealand and Australia. In ill health, Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died in 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.

 

Robeson was posthumously awarded a gold medal by the United Nations on 11 October 1978, in recognition of his contribution to the international campaign against apartheid.

 

 

Link

 

Statement by Leslie O Harriman at a special meeting of the Special Committee against Apartheid to pay tribute to Paul Robeson on his 80th birthday, 10 April 1978.

 

 

Stamp catalogue

 

German Democratic Republic                                22 March 1983

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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last revised: 28 March 2010