Paul Robeson was one of the leading American black artists and social activists of his time. Though he was accomplished in many areas including acting and athletics, he was primarily a singer and had a penchant for taking up controversial stands on an array of political and civil rights issues. He became an outcast in his homeland by the late 1940s, but near the end of the twentieth century, over 20 years after his death, his artistry drew new appreciation and his reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated.
Paul Robeson parents were Rev. William Drew Robeson and his wife Maria Louisa Robeson. The youngest of five children, Paul had a difficult childhood: when he was three, his father was driven out as pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and became a common laborer for several years to support his family; his mother, a school teacher, was burned to death in a freak accident three years later.
The family moved to Westfield, NJ, when he was nine, and Paul was enrolled in an integrated school. At the age of 17 Robeson entered Rutgers University under a four-year scholarship. There he broke records in baseball, track, and football, winning 15 letters and being named an All-American in the latter sport, as well as becoming class valedictorian. He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1923. By this time he had married Eslanda Cordoza Goode and had long divulged superior talents in both singing and acting.
After confronting racism and prejudice in the law profession, Robeson turned to acting in 1924, playing the lead in Eugene O'Neill's play All God's Chillun Got Wings in New York. He sang in his first concert in Boston that same year, receiving many kudos for his rich baritone voice and deep interpretive sense. In the mid-1920s he began focusing more on his vocal talents, giving concerts throughout the U.S., singing mainly so-called Negro spirituals. 1928 London theater audiences saw his first performance of "Ol' Man River" in a production of "Show Boat." By 1930 he had appeared in London, Vienna, Prague, and elsewhere in Europe singing both Negro spirituals and gypsy folk songs. He starred in his first talkie film, The Emperor Jones, in 1933.
In 1935, Robeson traveled to the Soviet Union, finding its socialist way of life much to his liking. He even pondered emigrating there. He became increasingly controversial in the latter-1930s, returning to the Soviet Union, as well as traveling to Spain to support the anti-Franco forces. Robeson also continued giving concerts throughout Europe and elsewhere during this time.
Throughout the 1940s Robeson's leftist tendencies grew, and he eventually came under suspicion by the F.B.I. for being a member of the Communist Party. In 1949, 85 of Robeson's scheduled concerts were canceled by booking agents fearful to be associated with the controversial artist. In 1950, he was banned from American television, and by then even prominent black leaders, such as Roy Wilkins and Walter White, considered him an outcast. Moreover, once-eager record labels and other entertainment industries now blacklisted him.
In 1958 an apparent third attempt on his life was made when his car went out of control, the result of someone tampering with the wheel assembly. Robeson's last concert tour was of New Zealand and Australia in 1960. He made trips to the Soviet Union that same year, and on a visit there in 1961, Robeson suffered a collapse and was hospitalized in Moscow and again in London. He was later diagnosed with Paget's disease and spent the remainder of his life in poor health. Robert Cummings