American singer, football player, and political activist Paul Robeson was born on the 9th of April 1898. In 1915 Robeson received an academic scholarship to Rutgers University in New Brunswick and went on to study at both New York University and Columbia University. Whilst studying, he starred and sang in off campus productions to supplement his income. Robeson also played American football for Rutgers ‘Scarlet Knights’ (the university’s own team) and went on to play for two NFL teams.
While playing for the Akron Pros NFL team Robeson studied law at Columbus University, where he also met and married his wife Eslanda “Essie” Goode. Essie coaxed him into getting involved in stage productions, where he excelled and found himself to be a success. In the spring of 1921 Robeson took a sabbatical from schooling and appeared in a production of Taboo which was headed to Britain. There he met classical musician Lawrence Brown. This particular production of Taboo was altered by Mrs Patrick Campbell (born Beatrice Rose Stella Tanner) to highlight Robeson’s singing and when the production ended he returned to Columbia and resumed his studies. Robeson ended his football career playing for the Milwaukee Badgers in 1922 and graduated from law school.
After briefly working as lawyer Robeson quit his career due to widespread racism present in America. While his wife financially supported the family Robeson pursued his acting career and by December 1924 had landed himself a lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s play All God’s Chillun got Wings. The play caused massive controversy due to the plot featuring a black man studying a law degree and his white wife trying to control him and being uneasy with her husband’s skin colour. The biggest controversy of the play was a single moment when Robeson’s black character kissed his white on-stage wife’s hand. This caused massive uproar in the racist American society of 1924.
The play was delayed due to controversy of the plot but Robeson found another role as Brutus in a revival of Emperor Jones which required Robson to deliver 90 minutes of soliloquy (speaking one’s thoughts aloud – a very common feature in stage productions). The production was an unequivocal success which helped to draw the controversy away from All God’s Chillun got Wings. Thanks to his success Robeson started moving in elite social circles; continuously pushed forward by Essie who quit her job and became his agent, landing him roles in silent films including the ‘race film’ Body and Soul (a race film was a genre specifically aimed at African American audiences).
By 1928 Robeson was touring with productions around London, his portrayal of ‘Joe’ in Show Boat was a great success, especially thanks to his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” which was to become his benchmark song. Robeson was summoned by royal command to perform at Buckingham Palace and also befriended MP’s from the House of Commons, eventually buying a home in Hampstead.
In 1929, after a matinee performance of Show Boat, Robeson heard singing which sounded like a male voice choir coming from the street. Upon investigating he was startled to see that the singers were miners from the Rhondda who had walked from Wales to London to protest being blacklisted by their employers. Robeson joined the miners, marching with them, and even gave a rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’ when they stopped outside a city building. Robeson gave donations of money to the miners so that they could return home by train and even provided them with food and clothing. This kindness was the start of a long relationship between Robeson and Wales; he toured Wales in 1930 playing Othello in Cardiff, Neath and Aberdare.
Performing in 1930, Robeson was the first black man to play Othello since Ira Aldridge (in 1807-1867). He also had an affair with Peggy Ashcroft who played Desdemona, although this wasn’t his first extramarital affair and by this point Essie had enough and decided to seek a divorce. By 1932 Robeson had returned to Broadway and reprised his role in Show Boat and reconciled with Essie after he ended his relationship with Ashcroft on the advice of his former football coach Foster Sandford. Despite being back together, his relationship with Essie was never quite the same.
After several unsuccessful film and stage productions due to the rising Jim Crow atmosphere in the States which permeated film and stage sets, Robeson returned to England. He refused to perform any central European operas because there was no connection in these to his heritage – except for Russian operas, due to the fact that he considered them Asiatic.
In early 1934 Robeson began studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies where he focused on phonetics and Swahili. His sudden interest in African history and culture came from his desire to embrace his ancestry. Robeson’s father had been born into slavery in America prior to emancipation. Politically, Robeson had become a fervent anti-imperialist and joined the British Socialists. Whilst playing a concert in Caernarfon Robeson heard of the Gresford colliery disaster, where 266 men died, and he donated his proceeds to a foundation set up to provide for the children of the deceased. It was this interaction with the miners and witnessing their harsh working conditions that got Robeson involved with trade unions and ignited his political activism. Robeson toured around Wales and championed the miners’ cause. He is quoted as saying to his audiences; “You have shaped my life”.
That same year Robeson toured the Soviet Union with a stopover in Nazi Germany, and performed in Moscow. By 1935 Robeson was an international film star and in 1936 he sent his son to study in the Soviet Union, to shield him from racist attitudes back in Britain and America. When the Spanish civil war broke out in 1936 Robeson followed it with growing concern and by 1937 the conflict had turned him into a full blown political activist, believing that fascism must be stopped at all costs.
In 1940 Robeson’s friendship with the miners of South Wales was cemented in film with the release of Proud Valley, in which he portrayed a black miner named David Goliath who comes to the Rhondda for work and strikes up a friendship with the miners. This became Robeson’s favourite film.
The same year Robeson returned to the United States where his career continued to prosper. He became the first African American to play Othello with a white supporting cast in America and appeared in other films and productions. Throughout the Second World War Robeson had become America’s number one performer with a radio broadcast of Ballad for Americans. In 1942 he narrated the documentary Native Land which the FBI labelled as communist propaganda. During a tour in California he found a hotel that let him stay there at an exorbitant rate and under an assumed name. As hotels in California were restricted, Robeson took the opportunity to spend hours in lobby where he would be recognised and is quoted to have said he did this “to ensure that next time blacks come through they will have a place to stay”. The restrictions on black guests in hotels were soon lifted in California thanks to Robeson’s efforts.
He continued to play Othello until 1945 but during the war he was disappointed in his failure to convince the major baseball league to admit Black players. Robeson also performed at various benefit concerts to aid the war effort and met two emissaries from the Jewish anti-fascist committee. After the war ended Robeson tried to end imperialist exploitation of Africa with the CAA but the motion was shut down by the United Nations. Robeson’s political activism even gained him a meeting with President Truman but the meeting ended with Truman walking out of the room after Robeson demanded anti Lynching legislation in the States, with Truman claiming the timing wasn’t right.
Robeson’s campaigning from 1946 to 1949 had him marked as a political agitator and communist sympathiser in the increasingly paranoid United States. Many of Robeson’s concerts were cancelled by the FBI after he travelled to the Soviet Union and spoke at the Paris Peace concert (funded by the USSR) and his words were twisted by the American press, culminating in the Peekskill Riots in August and September of 1949.
By the 50’s Robeson’s passport had been seized and he was unable to leave the United States, in a continued attempt to silence his criticisms of the American government. Robeson also presented a petition to the United Nations titled ‘We Charge Genocide’, accusing the American government under article 2 of the United Nations Genocide Convention in response to the government not presenting anti-lynching legislation. No action was taken on the matter as the U.S vetoed any motion.
Unable to leave the States, Robeson recorded radio concerts for his supporters in Wales thanks to the encouragement of his friend, the Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan. In 1957 Robeson, still unable to travel abroad, played a concert in London via telephone from the United States. The 1000 tickets sold out in a mere hour. He also performed remotely in Wales as part of the miners Eistefodd in the grand pavilion in Porthcawl, via transatlantic telephone wire TAT-1. After petitioning the United States to reinstate his passport and receiving a refusal 5000 people gathered in London to hear Robeson sing via telephone again. Eventually his passport was returned to him 1958 after the Supreme Court ruled in the Kent v. Dulles trial that it was a violation of free speech to forbid someone to travel on the basis of ideology.
Robeson, finally able to travel again, embarked on a world tour where he used London as his base, he also performed at the National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale. In 1959 Essie was diagnosed with operable cancer and Robeson himself was suffering bouts of dizziness. Although they had both recovered and visited the next Eisteddfod in 1959.
The American government and MI5 now kept Robeson under constant surveillance, and his health began to deteriorate alarmingly. In 1961 he suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized, but the treatment used – electric convulsions and barbiturates – shocked his family who had him transferred to a clinic in East Germany. After Essie’s death in 1965 Robeson sunk into seclusion, living with his sister in Philadelphia until his death in 1976.
Robeson is still remembered worldwide for his political activism, and here in Wales he is still remembered in a song by the Blackwood band The Manic Street Preachers – their number 19 chart hit from 2001 ‘Let Robeson Sing’. The Welsh Assembly funded his granddaughter Susan Robeson to help Swansea University create an online learning resource in 2010.
In 2018 a special tribute was paid to Paul Robeson at the national Eisteddfod in Cardiff with a concert called Hwn yw fy Mrawd (He’s my Brother),starring Bryn Terfel and composed by Robat Arwyn. It was the 60th anniversary of Robeson’s own performance at the National Eistedfodd.
See Paul Robeson and the peekskill riots by Daire Smith