Today is the 41st anniversary of the passing of Paul Leroy Robeson. His middle name is so fitting; Leroy comes from the French, “le roi” which means king. Robeson was indeed a king among men and many refer to him as a “Renaissance man” as he was brilliant and a true polymath. He was an actor, singer, professional athlete, activist and lawyer and he was excellent in all these things. He was black brilliance personified.
Robeson grew up in Princeton, N.J., the son of a Reverend William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill. At age 17, he earned a statewide academic scholarship to attend Rutgers College. Here he began his career as both a scholar and an athlete. From 1915 to 1919, he distinguished himself academically as a member of Phi Betta Kappa, winning four oratorical contests and eventually becoming the valedictorian of his class and as an athlete Robeson won 15 letters in four varsity sports. He accomplished all this in an atmosphere rife with racial hatred and physical threats. After graduating he attended Columbia University Law School and met and married his wife, Eslanda Cordoza Goode.
Robeson is most well known for his work as an actor and singer. He began his acting and film career in 1924 with is first film Body and Soul. Robeson went on to star in 11 films including Jericho (1937) and Proud Valley (1939).
Robeson supported Pan-Africanism as he gained a better understanding of colonized Africa. Also he was vocal in his criticism of racism in America and because of his black nationalist and anti-colonialist stance he was seen as a threat to American democracy.
He was supported the causes of working people and organized labor. He spoke and performed at strikes rallies, conferences, and labor festivals worldwide. Robeson worked tirelessly for international cooperation and protested the growing Cold War between the U.S. and Russia (then USSR) in hopes to form a friendship and respect between the two countries.
After being labeled a Communist by Joe McCarthy all efforts were made to silence him and his passport was revoked in 1950. He spent many years living in Europe and finally returned to the U.S. in 1958. Robeson spent his later years in West Philadelphia living with his sister. During the last decade of his life, he suffered depression as result and overall his health eventually declined. He died on this day in 1976.
So revered by the people of West Philadelphia, the home where he lived is now a historical landmark in his name. The Paul Robeson House is located at 4951 Walnut Street and continues to highlight the life, legacy and philosophy of this extraordinary man. Rutgers University’s Paul Robeson Cultural Center was established in 1967 and considered one of the first black cultural centers on a college campus. The center serves as a community hub for students, staff and alumni in the New Jersey area. The life and contributions of Paul Robeson are immense and deserve more time and study by us as educators and by our students. To know and understand his life is to honor his gift to us:
Peace and love good people.
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