Paul Robeson

Photo Credit: Common Creatives Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Paul Robeson’s birthday, (April 9, 1898) ignites a unique spirit in me. Robeson’s name remains underground with a black mark through it in the annals of history even today.

Robeson’s Somerville High School prowess in Princeton provided an inkling of why he now characterizes the moniker as the twentieth-century Renaissance man. He excelled academically, becoming the class valedictorian and winning a statewide scholarship to Rutgers University. In the arts, he sang in the choir and performed in Julius Caesar and Othello. As an athlete, he lettered in football, basketball, baseball, and track.

Robeson became a Rutgers University scholar-athlete from 1915-19 and tabbed as an All-American twice. After graduating from Rutgers, he trained to become a lawyer at Columbia University. He played in the NFL for several years and continued to reach the heights of a world-leading concert singer and actor in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Brother Robeson recorded almost 300 songs, primarily spirituals, and work pieces worldwide in his deep baritone voice.

“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “Old Man River” still resonate with his name.

The plays, Emperor Jones and Othello, forever continue to be synonymous with the name of Paul Robeson. On film, he received acclaim for movies such as Show Boat and Sanders of the River. Robeson raised funds to fight back against Franco of Spain fascism. He supported the allied forces in WWII against fascist Adolph Hitler’s regime. During the middle 1930s to 1940, he became involved in the Council of African Affairs, a group that called for colonized Africa’s independence from European colonial, plunder and rule.

According to the book Paul Robeson Speaks, on his first trip to the Soviet Union, he said, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity,” In the summer of 1946, Robeson met with President Harry Truman and admonished him for his failure to repress lynchings, saying that Blacks would do it themselves if he could not do it.

The U.S. Congressional House Un-American Committee member said if he liked Russia so much, why did he not stay?

Robeson told in his book Here I Stand, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here, and have a part of it just like you.” He earned the McCarthy-era scorn because of his outspokenness against Black oppression through oppressive Jim Crow practices, and his continued praise of the Soviet Union.

If you do not know about Paul Robeson, read his autobiography, Here I Stand and the book, Paul Robeson Speaks. Search for him in Google and YouTube. If you do know about him, read and look at them again for reference.

Former Coppin State University Professor, Dr. Ken Morgan is a human rights activist. He can be reached at: [email protected]