Article abstract: A Renaissance man, Robeson made unprecedented contributions to American and world history as an athlete, intellectual, performer, and internationally renowned peace advocate. In politics, he championed the cause of human rights for black Americans and other oppressed people throughout the world.
Paul Bustill Robeson was born April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, at a time when black Americans were politically disenfranchised, economically exploited, excluded from the mainstream of American life, and suffering the worst racial hostility since the abolition of slavery. Paul was the youngest of six children born to the Reverend Mr. William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson. His mother, Maria Louisa, was a member of the prominent Bustill family of Philadelphia, some of whom were patriots in the American Revolutionary War. The Bustills helped to establish the Free African Society and produced a long line of teachers, artisans, and ministers to the Northern free black community. Paul’s father, William Drew Robeson, was born a slave in Martin County, North Carolina. He fled to the North and, with the outbreak of the Civil War, joined the Union army. After the war, William Robeson attended Lincoln University and received a degree in divinity.
Paul was six years old when his mother died; the family moved to Sommerville, New Jersey, where Paul received most of his early education. The greatest influences on Paul for the remainder of his life were his family tradition, the environment of Jim Crow America, and the experience of being reared by his father. At an early age, Paul, who often worked with his father after school, sang in his father’s church, listened to stories about slavery, and became imbued with several basic principles: to labor diligently in all endeavors, pursue worthwhile goals, maintain high standards, be of service to his people, and maintain his integrity.
At age seventeen, Robeson won a state scholarship to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Those who knew him described him as a good-natured person who loved life. Striving for perfection in his work, this handsome six-foot, three-inch man maintained a sense of quiet, modest self-confidence. While attending Rutgers, he established an unprecedented academic record, achieving the highest grades in his class. He was also considered to be without equal in athletics.
Although football was his favorite sport, he participated in basketball, track and field, and baseball, winning an astonishing twelve major letters in four years. He was honored as the greatest athlete in Rutgers’ history and elected to the All-American team twice (in 1917 and 1918) and has been called the greatest defensive back ever to tread the gridiron. Robeson brought the school national recognition by being the first player ever named All-American in any sport at Rutgers.
Robeson also loved public speaking and debate. A master in elocution contests, for four consecutive years he won first place honors in many speaking competitions, excelling in oratory, in extemporaneous speaking, and in forensics.
Robeson won admission to Rutgers’ exclusive Cap and Skull honor association and the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa society. His senior thesis, “The Fourteenth Amendment: The Sleeping Giant of the American Constitution,” by identifying several ways in which the law could be used to secure civil rights for black Americans, presaged by nearly forty years ideas adopted by the United States Supreme Court in the landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). At commencement, he delivered the class oration, and afterward Rutgers honored him as the “perfect type of college man.”
In 1920, Robeson began law school at Columbia University and played a few games of professional football to finance his education. While at Columbia, he met and married Eslanda Goode Cardozo. They had a son, Paul, Jr., in 1927. After his graduation, Robeson worked briefly for a New York law firm; after encountering considerable hostility in the legal profession, however, he took up acting as a career.
During his law school days, Robeson played Simon in a benefit play, Simon the Cyrenian (1921), staged at the Harlem Young Men’s Christian Association by the Provincetown Players, a Greenwich Village theater group. His successful performance led to other parts, and he was offered the lead in two plays by Eugene O’Neill, All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924) and, in 1924, The Emperor Jones (1920). Robeson’s acting was immediately acclaimed. He also made theater history, for that production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings was the first in which a black man played the leading role opposite a white woman on the American stage. The young actor starred in numerous plays, including Black Boy (1925), by Jim Tully and Frank Dazey, Porgy (1927), by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Show Boat (1927), by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. He successfully toured Europe in the late 1920’s and throughout the 1930’s, drawing massive, enthusiastic crowds. Robeson played Othello in William Shakespeare’s play at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1930, where the opening performance received twenty curtain calls. He reached the pinnacle of his stage career in 1943-1944, with his New York performance in Othello, which holds the record for the longest run of any Shakespearean play produced on Broadway. His ovations were among “the most prolonged and wildest . . . in the history of the New York theatre.”
In one scene from the 1924 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Robeson was asked to whistle; instead, he sang a black spiritual. To his listeners’ delighted surprise, he had a marvelous voice. This event launched an illustrious musical career that brought additional celebrity. Robeson began augmenting his acting by singing spirituals. Robeson was the first person to give entire programs of exclusively Afro-American songs in concert to white audiences. This innovation made Robeson one of the most popular concert singers for more than a quarter of a century. Later, he broadened his repertoire to include the music of other nationalities. Accompanied on piano by Lawrence Brown, Robeson’s magnificent baritone voice thrilled audiences around the world. Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” became his personal signature, concluding every concert.
Robeson made several films, the more significant being The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Show Boat (1936), The Song of Freedom (1937), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), Jericho (1937), and Big Fella (1938). He was particularly pleased with Proud Valley (1939), which depicted the harsh life of Welsh coal miners and gave a fair and accurate portrayal of black people, and his narration for Native Land (1942), a moving documentary on contemporary American life. Although British filmmakers, unlike their American counterparts, were willing to feature Robeson in major roles, with few exceptions these films depicted blacks in a demeaning manner. Disgusted at the results, Robeson picketed his own films, abandoned the cinema, and focused attention on the stage, where he could control and determine the images in every performance.
As Robeson became more successful in the theater and on the concert stage, he committed himself to improving the plight of blacks. He believed that with his singing and acting he could increase the white world’s respect, knowledge, and understanding of his people. “They will,” he said in 1932, “sense that we are moved by the same emotions, have the same beliefs, the same longings—that we are all humans together.” Moreover, his prominence motivated him to reaffirm his black identity, and he started a campaign to educate black people about the virtues of their own cultural heritage, arguing that African history was as old and significant as that of the Chinese or Persians....
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