Here’s What You Need To Know About Paul Robeson

Here's What You Need To Know About Paul Robeson

This week on The More You Know, we’ll be talking about more prominent black figures in American history. This week, we have Paul Robeson, a Rutgers alumni, an immensely popular old Hollywood star, and an international activist.

An incredibly bright man, Paul Robeson left his mark on the world in several ways. The third African American student to attend Rutgers University, he became one of the university’s most decorated students- a four time, four-sport letterman, two-time All-American football star, member of Phi Beta Kappa, and class valedictorian- so much so, they still honor immensely to this day.

One of the most elite sports player of his time, Robeson played football for both Rutgers and Columbia University to pay for tuition.

By 1920, Robeson was enrolled in Columbia University’s law school, where he met his wife, Eslanda Goode, a fellow classmate and journalist, in 1921. He worked at a law firm in 1923 for a few years before stepping back due to severe racism. With Eslanda’s help, he began his career as an actor.

Robeson made his mark in the artistic world with his several hit leads in plays and musical that had a lasting mark on the world. He starred in shows like All God’s Chillun (1924, NYC), Emperor Jones (1925, London), Showboat (1928, London), and Othello (1930, 1943-44, NYC). He is best known for Showboat, in which the role was written for him. The show itself was controversial because it was the first that showed the racism of the south.  The song Ol’ Man River is best acquainted with Robeson.

In the late ’20s, Robeson relocated to Europe with his family and became an international star through big-screen features. His movies ranged from Borderline (1930), a 1933 remake of The Emperor Jones,  and others. He would also star in a movie remake of Showboat  in 1936. Robeson’s last film was Tales of Manhattan (1942), which he critiqued after it was released for its demeaning portrayal of African Americans.

Besides art, Robeson was a prominent figure in activism of his time. He regularly spoke out against racial injustice and was involved in world politics, even once being considered for a U.S. Vice President spot on Henry A. Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party Ticket. He sang for loyalist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, supported Pan-Africanism, and took part in Anti-Nazi demonstrations during WWII.

His downfall was his fondness for Russia. In the mid ’30s, Robeson visited the Soviet Union several times and began to develop a fondness for Russian folk culture. As the Cold War deepened over the decade, Robeson’s relationship with the U.S.S.R became controversial, as his own beliefs contradicted Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship.

During a speech at a U.S.S.R-backed Paris Peace Conference in 1945, Robeson’s address was misinterpreted by the Americans after he explained to the audience that WWII was not inevitable, as many Americans didn’t want war. Before he even took the stage, his speech was transcribed and dispatched back to the U.S. The next day, Robeson was branded as a communist for “insinuating that black Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union.”

It was said later that an anonymous reporter submitted it back before Robeson had even gotten onto stage. His original speech, per French transcripts, was: “We in America do not forget that it is on the backs of the poor whites of Europe…and on the backs of millions of black people that the wealth of America has been acquired. And we are resolved that it shall be distributed in an equitable manner among all of our children and we don’t want any hysterical stupidity about our participating in a war against anybody no matter whom. We are determined to fight for peace. We do not wish to fight the Soviet Union.” That was changed to:  “It is unthinkable that American negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.”

Jackie Robinson testifying before the HUAC on July 18, 1946

Years later, it would be revealed that the speech was misinterpreted, but at the height of McCarthyism, the damage was done. Unaware of how badly the report was ruining his reputation, Robeson continued on his tour in Europe. By the time he returned home to the U.S, he was a national enemy. On July 18, 1949, Jackie Robinson was brought to Washington D.C. to testify against Robeson before the HUAC to denounce him of his leadership role in the black community. Robinson remarked that Robeson’s communist opinions did not reflect on all black Americans, and Robeson’s passport was revoked, and 85 of his planned concerts in the U.S. were cancelled. Every important conservative to Eleanor Roosevelt revoked his name, and called him a traitor. During the Red Scare, Robeson was dubbed as the “Black Stalin.”

While Robeson was not a communist, he had associated with communist causes from Africa to the Soviet Union. Compared to countries like America or WWII Germany where black people weren’t treated equally, the U.S.S.R looked at Robeson with admiration, without harboring resentment for the color of his skin, and no racial animosity.

“Here, I am not a negro but a human being for the first time in my life. I walk in full human dignity.”

Robeson’s name was stricken from all college All-American football teams, newsreel footage was destroyed, recordings were erased and an effort was made to avoid his name at all costs for several years. Later on, Robeson was brought before HUAC and was asked to identify members of the Communist Party and to admit his own membership. Still a lawyer, Robeson reminded the committee that the Communist Party was a legal party in the United States, and then he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.

In 1958, Robeson published an autobiography, Here I Stand, the same year that his passport was reinstated. He travelled internationally and received accolades for his work, but his damage was done permanently. His family returned to the United States in 1963, and after Eslanda’s death in 1965, Paul moved in with his sister until his death on January 23, 1976. He died at age 77.

Historians have worked hard over the last decades to give more life to Paul Robeson’s legacy, including several biographies on his life, theaters being dedicated to him, and he was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Paul Robeson’s legacy as a prominent activist, actor, and football player will live on forever.