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​Paul Robeson - Interview 1958

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson   1898-1976

Paul Robeson was one of those people who seemed to have been born with everything.  He was an outstanding athlete, a brilliant student, a great actor, and a singer.  He enjoyed riches and fame.  But he lost almost everything because he stood up for what he thought was right.

Paul was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 29, 1898.  His parents were Anna and Drew Robeson.  Anna Robeson was part American Indian.  Drew Robeson, who had been born a slave, worked his way through college and became a minister.  The Robeson family valued learning and success.

Paul won a scholarship to go to Rutgers College.  He was an All-American in sports.  He sang in the college choir and won many speaking contests.  He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.  After leaving Rutgers, Paul went to Columbia University to study law.  He worked his way through law school by playing professional football.

In 1921, Paul married Eslanda Cardozo Goode.  The couple's only child Paul, Jr., was born in 1927.  It was Eslanda who urged Paul Robeson to become an actor.  In 1925, he got the leading part in Eugene O'Neill's play, The Emperor Jones.  This play was about an American Black singer who visited Africa and discovered that he was a descendant of a great African chief.  To play the part, Robeson had to sing.  His rich bass voice pleased the public as much as his acting did.

For the next 20 years, Paul Robeson went from one success to another.  He appeared in Shakespeare's play, Othello, in London.  He gave music concerts, singing spirituals, folk songs, and songs from operas.  He starred in the early movie productions of The Emperor Jones, Jericho, King Solomon's Mines, and Saunders of the River.  He was especially famous for the song Ol' Man River, from the movie Showboat.

But riches and fame were not enough to make Paul Robeson happy.  He could not stop thinking about the lack of equality for Black people.  He saw the need for justice, and became interested in the ideas communism.  He spoke out against the United States for its mistreatment of Black people.

Robeson's stance on his race marked the beginning of his downfall.  Americans began to turn against him.  They also turned against his wife because of her ideas on Africa.  She had made many trips to Africa and met with the African leaders.  She supported the new African nations.

The Robeson's were brought before the United States Congress and asked whether they were Communists.  They refused to answer because they believed that the government had no right to question them.  Because of their silence, more people turned against them.  Paul Robeson found it harder to earn money.  So, he and Eslanda were forced to sell their home.

The Robeson's left the United States.  Between 1958 and 1963, they lived in the Soviet Union.  Traveling widely, Robeson gave concerts and spoke out for freedom.  He learned to speak Russian, Chinese and six other languages.  In 1963, the Robeson's came back to the United States to work for the Civil RIghts Movement.  They marched in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965.

Paul Robeson died on January 23, 1976.  He had become a hero to many Americans.  Today, he is admired even more in South America, Southeast Asia, Africa and wherever people are still struggling for freedom.

Excerpt from A Gift of Heritage Historic Blacks in the Arts.

This is only a summary of the life of Paul Robeson.