In Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, Paul Robeson was born to a former slave, the Rev. William Robeson. His mother, a teacher, died shortly thereafter when he was only five years old. Three years later, the Robeson family moved to Westfield, New Jersey. In 1910, Robeson's father became pastor of St.Thomas A.M.E. Zion Church and the Robeson family moved to Somerville, New Jersey. Paul Robeson attended Somerville High School. There, Robeson excelled in sports, drama, singing, academics, and debating. He graduated from Somerville High School in 1915.
Robeson was awarded a four year academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, the third black student in the history of the institution. Despite the openly racist and violent opposition he faced, Robeson became a twelve letter athlete excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was named to the All American Football team on two occasions. In addition to his athletic talents, Robeson was named a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society, and graduated valedictorian of his class in 1919.
He went on to study law at Columbia in New York and received his degree in 1923. There he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who was the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory. Robeson worked as a law clerk in New York, but once again faced discrimination and soon left the practice because a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.
At this point in his life, Paul returned to his childhood love of drama and singing. He starred in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924, creating the starring role. While the racial subject matter of the play spurred controversy and protest, he went on to star in another play by O'Neill - Emperor Jones. Perhaps he is most widely recognized from the musical Showboat, where he changed the lines of the song "Old Man River". His eleven films included Body and Soul, Jericho, and Proud Valley.
His concert career reads like a world traveler's passport: New York, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Paris, Holland, London, Moscow, and Nairobi. His travels taught him that racism was not as prevalent in Europe as it was back home. In the United States, he couldn't enter theaters through the front door or sing without intimidation and protest, but in London he was welcomed with open arms and standing ovations. Robeson believed in the universality of music and that by performing Negro spirituals and other cultures' folk songs, he could promote intercultural understanding. As a result, he became a citizen of the world, singing for peace and equality in twenty-five languages.
During the 1940's Robeson continued to have success on the stage, in film, and in concert halls, but remained face to face with prejudice and racism. After finding the Soviet Union to be a tolerant and friendly nation, he began to protest the growing Cold War hostilities between the United States and the USSR. He began to question why African-Americans should support a government that did not treat them as equals. At a time when dissent was hardly tolerated, Robeson was looked upon as an enemy by his government. In 1947, he was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the State Department denied him a passport until 1958. Events such as these, along with a negative public response, led to the demise of his public career.
Paul Robeson died on January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after living in seclusion for ten years. Robeson's legacy has been an inspiration to millions around the world. His courageous stance against oppression and inequality inpart led to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Through his stage and film performances he opened doors to inter-racial performances. With his travels across America and abroad, he opened the world's eyes to oppression. Robeson stood tall and proud against powerful governmental and societal forces. He remains in our memory a successful scholar, athlete, performer, and activist.
In the words of Paul Robeson: "To be free -to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil to give our children every opportunity in life - that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny that we hold in our hands." (Robeson 108)