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Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

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Also Known As: Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson Died: January 23, 1976
Born: April 9, 1898 Cause of Death: complications from a stroke
Birth Place: Princeton, New Jersey, USA Profession: actor, singer, author, professional football player, lawyer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

The son of a runaway slave turned minister and a schoolteacher, Paul Robeson proved to be an unique figure in American history. A tall, handsome man with a commanding stage presence and mellifluous, booming baritone, he was not only a distinguished actor and singer but also a scholar, athlete and lawyer. Born and raised in New Jersey, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers and was only the third black to enroll at the school. He excelled at athletics, earning letters in four sports (basketball, track, baseball and football) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. Robeson made Phi Beta Kappa and was his class valedictorian. Moving to NYC, he entered Columbia University's Law School, playing professional football for three seasons (1920-23) and acting and singing to help defray the expenses. In 1921, he had an early stage role in the biblically-themed "Simon the Cyrenian" and later joined the cast of the all-black musical "Shuffle Along" in 1922. Admitted to the New York State Bar, Robeson found work at a law firm but left when a Caucasian secretary refused to take dictation from him. Gravitating towards the stage, this singularly versatile talent found success alternately the leads in two...

The son of a runaway slave turned minister and a schoolteacher, Paul Robeson proved to be an unique figure in American history. A tall, handsome man with a commanding stage presence and mellifluous, booming baritone, he was not only a distinguished actor and singer but also a scholar, athlete and lawyer. Born and raised in New Jersey, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers and was only the third black to enroll at the school. He excelled at athletics, earning letters in four sports (basketball, track, baseball and football) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. Robeson made Phi Beta Kappa and was his class valedictorian. Moving to NYC, he entered Columbia University's Law School, playing professional football for three seasons (1920-23) and acting and singing to help defray the expenses. In 1921, he had an early stage role in the biblically-themed "Simon the Cyrenian" and later joined the cast of the all-black musical "Shuffle Along" in 1922. Admitted to the New York State Bar, Robeson found work at a law firm but left when a Caucasian secretary refused to take dictation from him. Gravitating towards the stage, this singularly versatile talent found success alternately the leads in two Eugene O'Neill dramas, "The Emperor Jones" and the controversial "All God's Chillun Got Wings". As the latter depicted an interracial marriage, it was the subject of debate and condemnation, but the actor triumphed.

His stage success led to film work. Robeson debuted in a dual role of an unscrupulous preacher and his more virtuous brother in Oscar Micheaux's silent "Body and Soul" (1924). While Jerome Kern wanted the singer-actor to originate the role of Joe in the Broadway premiere "Show Boat" (Robeson had even signed a contract), production delays and conflicting bookings led to Robeson being replaced. He did get to play the role in London and his stirring delivery of "Ol' Man River" became the definitive version of the song for generations. Settling in Europe where he felt a person of color could find more diverse employment opportunities, Robeson appeared in the experimental feature "Borderline" (1930). He briefly returned to America to film "The Emperor Jones" (1933), considered by many critics to be his best work despite the inherent flaws of the material. Declining the opportunity to perform in "Aida" in Chicago, he returned to England to undertake the role of an African chief in the ill-advised "Sanders of the River" (1934). He fared only slightly better in a similar role in the first filming of H Rider Haggard's adventure novel "King Solomon's Mines" (1937). Robeson accepted the film version of "Show Boat" (1936) primarily for the money, but it at least provided a record of his signature vocals for "Ol' Man River". As roles for blacks in Hollywood were severely limited to caricatures and menials, he returned to England and appeared in a handful of films that, while routine, at least offered less stereotypical roles. He twice played a dockworker in films that also showcased his rich baritone. "Song of Freedom" (1936) cast him as a laborer turned opera star who discovers he is heir to an African throne while "Big Fella" (1937) teamed him with Elizabeth Welch in an offbeat tale of blackmail and kidnapping. "Jericho/Dark Sands" (1938) saw Robeson portraying a court-martialed American who escapes to Africa. Some find the film charming while others decry its now blatant racist overtones. He was again a noble figure in "The Proud Valley" (1939), playing a coal miner in Wales who sacrifices his life for his fellow workers. It was to be the last of his leading roles. Robeson returned to the USA and made only one other film appearance in the omnibus "Tales of Manhattan" (1942), teamed in a sketch with Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson and Ethel Waters that reduced these fine performers to ridiculous stereotypes as sharecroppers. That same year, he narrated the civil rights documentary "Native Land" which received a very limited release.

Robeson returned to the stage, starring in an acclaimed 1942 production of "Othello" that cause some controversy over his kissing his Caucasian co-star Uta Hagen. The show began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and went on to play nearly 300 performances on Broadway in 1943 and toured extensively. As the decade wore on, though, Robeson came under attack for many of his political views. Having been warmly welcomed in the Soviet Union, he became a vocal advocate of Communism and other left-wing causes. Willing to risk his career for viewpoints that some found objectionable, he constantly called attention to bigotry and the limited opportunities for persons of color, including picketing the White House and calling for a crusade against lynching. Called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1946, Robeson proved a strong presence. Responding to a query as to why he didn't go to live in the USSR, he told the Committee "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?" Yet, some of his views were controversial, notably his call for black youth not to participate if there was a war with the Soviet Union. Like many other artists of the time, Robeson was blacklisted and his passport was revoked for eight years (1950-58). By the time the US Supreme Court restored his right to travel, his health had begun to fail. In 1958, he published his autobiography, "Here I Stand" but few major newspapers would review it. He twice tried to commit suicide and suffered a series of breakdowns that led him to withdraw from public life. He died of complications from a stroke in 1976. Three years later, he was the subject of the documentary "Paul Robeson: Portrait of an Artist" and over the next thirty years, his reputation as an artist and world citizen was gradually restored.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Native Land (1942) Narrator/Singer
2.
 Tales of Manhattan (1942) Luke
3.
 The Proud Valley (1940)
4.
 Jericho (1937)
5.
 King Solomon's Mines (1937) Umbopa
6.
 Big Fella (1937)
7.
 Show Boat (1936) Joe
8.
 Song of Freedom (1936)
9.
 Sanders of the River (1935) Bosambo
10.
 The Emperor Jones (1933) Brutus Jones
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Born and raised in New Jersey
1920:
Played professional football in the American Professional Football League in Hammond, Akron and Milwaukee
1921:
Early stage role in "Simon the Cyrenian"
1922:
Joined the cast of the Broadway musical "Shuffle Along" (date approximate)
1923:
Admitted to the Bar of New York State and briefly worked in a law firm; left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him
1924:
Starred in the leading roles of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" and "All God's Chillun Got Wings" at the Provincetown Playhouse; the latter caused controversy over the play's central drama which revolved around a white woman married to a black man
1925:
Feature film debut in "Body and Soul", directed by Oscar Micheaux; played dual role of an unscrupulous preacher and his virtuous brother
1927:
Signed to appear as Joe in the original stage production of "Show Boat"; dropped out because of delays in production
1928:
Played Joe in the London premiere of "Show Boat"
1929:
Made debut at Carnegie Hall in NYC
1930:
First played "Othello" in London
1930:
Made second film appearance in the experimental "Borderline", shot in Switzerland; co-starred with his wife
:
Moved to London, England
1933:
Returned to NYC to recreate his stage role in the film version of "The Emperor Jones"
1934:
Turned down an offer from the Chicago Opera to star in "Aida" to accept the role of the African chief Bosambo in "Sanders of the River"
1934:
Made first of several visits to the Soviet Union
1936:
Again recreated a stage role, that of Joe who sings "Ol' Man River" in "Show Boat"
1937:
Played an African native in "King Solomon's Mines"
1938:
Visited Madrid, Spain to entertain the International Brigade fighting in the Spanish Civil War
1942:
Last film appearance in the omnibus feature "Tales of Manhattan"; appeared with Ethel Waters and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson
1942:
Narrated "Native Land", a documentary about civil rights abuses
1942:
Triumphed onstage as "Othello"; production premiered in Cambridge, MA before moving to NYC in 1943 ; later toured with the show, co-starring Jose Ferrer and his then-wife Uta Hagen
:
Wrote a column for PEOPLE'S VOICE in the 1940s
1946:
Summoned to testify before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC)
1950:
After failing to renounce his views on the Soviet Union, his passport is revoked
:
Edited and wrote a column for FREEDOM (dates approximate)
1956:
Testified before HUAC
1958:
After a US Supreme Court decision, his passport was restored
1960:
Made last concert tour appearing in New Zealand and Australia
1963:
Retired from public life
1979:
Was the subject of the documentary "Paul Robeson: Portrait of an Artist"
1982:
First production of a play, "Paul Robeson", performed by Avery Brooks; play staged Off-Broadway in 1988
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Rutgers College: New Brunswick , New Jersey - 1919
Columbia University Law School: New York , New York - 1923

Notes

Robeson was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952 but was unable to accept it until 1958 when his passport (which had been revoked in 1950) was restored to him.

In 1995, he was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

"I've learned that my people are not the only ones oppressed ... I have sung my songs all over the world and everywhere found that some common bond makes the people of all lands take to Negro songs as their own." --Paul Robeson

"The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." --Paul Robeson

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Eslanda Cardoza Goode. Met while attending Columbia; married on August 17, 1921; became first black woman to head a pathology lab; died in 1965.
companion:
Uta Hagen. Actor. Played opposite him in "Othello".

Family close complete family listing

father:
William Drew Robeson. Minister. Former slave.
mother:
Maria Louisa Robeson. Schoolteacher. Died in a stove fire c. 1904.
son:
Paul Robeson Jr. Born c. 1927.

Bibliography close complete biography

"Here I Stand"
"Paul Robeson" Alfred A. Knopf
"Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen"

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