Written by: Dylan Hebert (History, Class of 2017)
Known as the most talented man of the twentieth century, Paul Robeson is famous for his role as a prominent singer, actor, social activist, athlete, and lawyer. He was the ultimate Renaissance man. Born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898, his mother was a teacher and his father was a Presbyterian Minister, who escaped from slavery in 1860 at the age of fifteen through the underground railroad. Robeson’s mother died when he was just five years old and his father when he was only twenty. Earning a scholarship to attend Rutgers University, he excelled both academically as the class valedictorian and in sports as an All-American athlete. By twenty-four, he had graduated from Columbia Law School, funding his studies by playing for two seasons in the National Football League.
Starting off his career as a Lawyer at a New York Law firm, racial strife at the firm forced him to end his career early. Soon after, he began a new career as an actor and just a year later in 1924 he earned a lead role in Eugene O’Neils “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” Soon after he began starring in Broadway plays. He played the lead role as Othello on Broadway, a controversial role due to his romantic partnership with a white woman in a racist atmosphere. Even so, the play was remarkably successful and to this day is the longest running Shakespeare play on Broadway. Known for his remarkable bass-baritone voice, Robeson performed not only as an actor, but also as a singer around the world. He sang in twenty-five different languages, fifteen of which he himself spoke.
Robeson was not afraid to speak out on the issues he believed in and he used his fame and influence as a means of garnering attention and support for his political causes. In 1943 he headed a delegation who met with the Major League Baseball commissioner and owners of the various baseball teams in support of desegregation of the sport and in 1945 led an organization that demanded Truman support the legislation of anti-lynching laws. Robeson’s political activism extended beyond the United States, speaking out against fascism in Europe, and supporting anti-colonialist movements in Africa. At a rally for the antifascist forces of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Robeson explained his support for the Republican cause in opposition to fascism, stating, “the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” While performing at a concert in Moscow, he even sang the anthem of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Yiddish during a time of rampant anti-Semitic persecution.
Traveling across the world, Robeson performed everywhere from Broadway to Stalinist Moscow, from Buckingham Palace to the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War. However, of all the places he visited, it was in Hartford County, Connecticut that he made his home from 1940 to 1953. In the small town of Enfield, the Robesons were the only black family. There, Robeson performed annual concerts in support of the Enfield Teacher’s Association Child Welfare Fund at Enfield High School, where his son, Paul Jr., attended. Although he died in 1976 in Philadelphia, during his time in Enfield, he spoke of Enfield and Connecticut, stating, “here is to be our home for the rest of our lives.”
Selling his Enfield home in 1953, Robeson’s move was largely a result of his blacklisting in the United States during the McCarthy era. Due to his political activism in support of workers, African-American civil rights, and friendship with the Soviet Union, he had gotten the attention of The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). At his testimony before the House of Un-American Activities in 1956, he spoke out against McCarthyism, looking at the HUAC members who had persecuted him and many others, stating, “you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” With his passport revoked, he was barred and ostracized from society. He could no longer perform in concerts in Europe, where he had earned so much popularity, Attendance to his concerts dwindled in the United States, as any association with Robeson, even an act as simple as attending one of his concerts, was regarded as a risk to being targeted as a communist. As a result, Robeson’s salary declined from $100,000 in 1947 to $6,000 in 1952. His revoked passport was finally returned to him in 1958, but by then his influence and popularity had disappeared. Like W.E.B. DuBois, he was prevented from playing a major role in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s due to this ostracism. Soon after, his health began to worsen and after a few comeback tours in Europe between 1958 and 1960, he settled into his retirement until his death in 1976.