Paul Leroy Robeson was born April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was William D. Robeson, a prominent local minister who escaped from a plantation as a teenager, and his mother was Maria Louise Bustill, who was from a prominent and well settled Quaker family of English-American, Lenape Native, and West African descent.
Robeson’s high school career was marked by academic and athletic excellence. He played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track. He also developed his vocal talents with the school’s choir. At the time, Robeson was one of the few African-American students to have ever enrolled at Rutgers (there had only been two previous in the school’s history by the time of his enrollment in 1915), where he once again excelled at football, singing, and academics, becoming valedictorian and lettering in several sports.
Robeson entered Columbia University School of Law in 1920, after a brief stint at New York University School of Law. He took up residence in Harlem and married his wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson, in 1921. Robeson had a brief law career that ended after he came to realize the institutional racism that pervaded that profession.
He became a widely renowned actor, performing in The Emperor Jones, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and Body and Soul. This made him extremely famous, and he could often be seen in the company of such people as Eugene O’Neill, Gertrude Stein, and Claude McKay. He became even more renowned with his role as Joe in the musical, Show Boat, and was said to have set the bar for all later performances of the song “Ol’ Man River.”
Robeson soon became a world traveler, visiting the United Kingdom, Nazi Germany (where he saw brutal fascism and made comparisons with the situation in the United States), and the Soviet Union, where he met renowned director Sergei Eisenstein. While traveling overseas, he stated that he felt that, “I am not a negro, but a human being.”
He subsequently became more politically conscious in his roles as an actor, portraying Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’OUverture in the Trinidadian communist CLR James’ play of the same title. He considered the Spanish Civil War to be the turning point of his life, and subsequently became radicalized and dedicated to the liberation of all humanity. He became active in the anti-fascist movement and the fight against imperialism in Africa and Asia.
Robeson made an enemy of President Harry S. Truman after forcefully demanding anti-lynching legislation. He stated that failure to enact it would result in “Negroes defending themselves,” after which Truman immediately ended the meeting.
On September 23, 1946, Robeson founded the American Crusade against Lynching, and subsequently found himself called before Congress to answer questions regarding his involvement with the Communist Party of the United States. He subsequently found himself to be blacklisted and labeled as an enemy of the U.S., which resulted in his removal from the list of Rutgers football players, the confiscation of his passport, and essentially being barred from participating in mainstream activism.
He continued to advocate for the USSR as a bastion of freedom and hope for humanity, praising Stalin after his death. He eventually found himself before the notorious McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), at which he launched a vicious polemic against the inquisitors, calling them “fascists.” However, it became increasingly more difficult to gain access to his music and other artistic materials as a result.
Robeson soon launched a worldwide comeback tour. He visited the United Kingdom and Australia, but began having health problems, no doubt exacerbated by the constant harassment he suffered in the United States. He was asked by James Farmer, Jr., to renounce communism and his support for the USSR in exchange for a sort of rehabilitation and a place in the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, which he refused to do.
On January 23, 1976, Robeson died following complications from a stroke, leaving behind a legacy of working class solidarity and a voice that touched the people of the entire world.