Paul Robeson was a lawyer, actor, singer, political activist, and a leader of and inspiration to other blacks in the years before the Civil Rights movement.
Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey to an ex-slave who became a church minister. He showed his intellectual and athletic prowess early, and won a scholarship to attend what in 1915 was called Rutgers College.
The third African-American ever admitted (and the only black while he was attending there), he became a star athlete, playing for Rutgers’ otherwise all-white football, baseball, basketball, and track teams. He won 14 varsity letters and was a two-time All-American football player. (During scrimmages as Robeson initially tried out for the football team, he faced savage physical punishment from racist members of the team. He bore the abuse to prove his worth, eventually becoming the greatest football player of his era, according to his coach, Walter Camp.) He was also Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian of his class.
In 1923, Robeson received a law degree from Columbia Law School, but had trouble making a living because of discrimination. (For example, even if he could find a job, no white secretary would work for him.) He then turned to the performing arts, where it was more acceptable to hire blacks. In 1924, Eugene O’Neill cast him in the “Emperor Jones” and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” in New York City. A few years later, Robeson went to London to star in the musical “Showboat.” His performance was universally acclaimed for his show-stopping rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” Later, he performed the song on Broadway and in a Hollywood movie. He played Othello on the stage and was wildly popular in Europe.
His European trips exposed him to a diversity of political ideas, and also to the unusual experience of a black being treated like a man. He became politically outspoken, and his criticism of racism, combined with his intelligence and popularity, aroused the ire of the State Department. He had his passport revoked, and was hounded by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.
He died in 1976 at the age of 77.
Paul Robeson’s biography by Martin Duberman is a powerfully inspiring story of a man who was repeatedly pushed down but who stood right back up. His friends thought him a “mountain of joy,” his admirers a mountain of intellect, and his detractors a mountain of trouble. The New York Times said of him, “This amazing man, this great intellect, this magnificent genius with his overwhelming love of humanity is a devastating challenge to a society built on hypocrisy, greed and profit-seeking at the expense of common humanity.”
Below is the incomparable Paul Robeson singing Ol Man River.