Paul Robeson, the man of a million tal¬ ents who applied himself to athletics, act¬ ing, and civil rights leadership, was the son of a man who had escaped slavery, and a woman who died when Paul was still a young boy. Bom in Princeton, New Jersey and educated primarily in Somerville, Robeson showed an early and exceptional intellect.
He was elected into the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity in his junior year at Rut¬ gers University and earned 12 letters in var¬ ious sports, including football. He was named All-American twice — the first African-American to win that honor.
He graduated as the class valedictorian in 1919 and played professional football to work his way through Columbia University Law School. Completing his degree in two years, Robeson emerged from Columbia 25 years old and already turning his passion to a new career— acting.
Eugene O’Neill, one of the world’s respected playwrights, saw Robeson per¬ form and offered him the lead in his great play All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1925). Next, Robeson was offered a role in O’Neill’s famous Emperor Jones. Finding a new interest in music that matched his love for sports, learning, and theater, Robeson accepted composer Jerome Kern’s offer to play Joe in Showboat. With his booming, rich voice, Robeson made the song “OF Man River” a national favorite.
Traveling abroad, Robeson built faithful audiences all over Europe, and in 1931, accepted the role of a lifetime: “There has never been and never will be a finer rendi¬ tion of this particular tragedy. It is unbe¬ lievably magnificent….” This was the senti¬ ment repeated over and over again in the reviews for Robeson’s never-to-be-equaled performance of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Mastering everything he attempted, Robeson moved on quickly. Taking up an interest in politics and race, Robeson became one of the best educated and elo¬ quent speakers of the early 20th century.
Learning over 20 languages so that he might understand the cultures of 20 differ¬ ent peoples, Robeson studied different political systems, claiming publicly that the Soviet Union was a better friend to African peoples than the US. He co-founded the Council ofAfrican Affairs in 1937, embrac¬ ing socialism because it included racial equality. He marched on Washington, protested lynching, and refused to perform for segregated audiences.
His opinions, no matter how egalitarian, brought him to the end of his career. His defense of the Soviet Union during the red scare led the US State Department to pull his passport. Unable to tour abroad, and black¬ listed by the entertainment industry for his socialist ideas, Robeson was unable to work. No one in the industry would hire him.
Robeson moved back to Harlem, New York and settled in. In 1958 his passport was returned. Though he tried to return to his singing career, illness forbade it and Robeson lived quietly in Harlem and Philadelphia until his death.