Athlete, actor, musician, activist… for someone so famous and accomplished, it’s amazing that practically no one today knows Paul Robeson’s name.
-Valedictorian of his graduating class at Rutgers University (Robeson wanted to attend Princeton, but was excluded for being black – he was only the 3rd black student admitted to Rutgers, and the only one on campus at the time).
-Won 15 varsity letters during his 4 years of college (Football, baseball, basketball and track). Considered one of the greatest collegiate football players ever, it took until 1995 for him to be inducted into the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame.
-Graduated from Colombia Law school (but quit his job due to widespread racism, including from his white secretary, who refused to take dictation). During law school, Robeson began his acting/singing career and played professional football in the early NFL.
-A leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, it was here Robeson met Eugene O’Neill, who recruited Robeson to star in two of his plays, beginning Robeson’s international acting career.
-Robeson’s Othello is the longest running Shakespeare play on Broadway.
-A hugely popular singer and actor (both in film and on stage). Robeson was the first black man to play the lead in Othello on Broadway, the first black man to play a starring role in a major Hollywood film (Emperor Jones), and using his amazing singing voice, he elevated negro spirituals to popular music.
-Robeson spoke 15 languages, and fought for social justice causes around the world: miners in Wales, Aborigines in Australia, Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, anti-apartheid in South Africa… He believed famous people had a responsibility to fight for justice and peace.
-Robeson was a friend of both Albert Einstein (who served as co-chair of Robeson’s American Crusade Against Lynching)
and Marian Anderson (like her, Robeson had not been allowed to perform at Constitution Hall because of his race).
It was his sympathy for the Soviet Union and Communism that got Robeson into real trouble with the American government. He was swept up in the Red Scare- blacklisted, his passport revoked, and his performances canceled. He was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to denounce his beliefs.
Even after his passport was returned and he retired to Philadelphia to live quietly with his sister, the FBI could often be spotted parked in the street in front of the house monitoring his activities and interrogating anyone who visited.
His wife, Eslanda, was no slouch either. In addition to being Robeson’s business manager, she was also an actress, head histological chemist of Surgical Pathology at NY Presbyterian Hospital, author, anthropologist, and activist.
Today, you can visit the row house on Walnut Street where Robeson spent his last 10 years.
Now open as a museum, information panels, photographs, and docents highlight Robeson’s remarkable life from his beginnings in Princeton to his death in Philadelphia.