Actor, activist, athlete and one of the greatest bass singers in American Popular music, Paul Robeson, was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of a minister who had escaped from slavery.
At the age of 17, Robeson became the third African American to enter Rutgers College where he made All-American in football. After Rutgers he played professional football to support his studies at Columbia law school. After graduation, he worked at a New York law firm but quit when a stenographer refused to copy a memo of his due to his race.
Since Robeson already had experience in theater, his wife, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, encouraged him to pursue acting. In 1922 he appeared on Broadway, playing Jim in Jim H. Harris' Taboo, and then traveled to England where he revised the role. He joined Eugene O'Neill's Greenwich Village Provincetown Players on his return to the US, and appeared in All God's Chillun Got Wings. He also won critical acclaim for his starring role in The Emperor Jones in 1925.
Robeson toured England and the United States over the next three years, signing black spirituals and creating a sensation with his role as Joe in Showboat. His recording of ‘Ol’ Man River” was his most successful recording, hitting #7 on the pop charts in 1928.
For the next ten years, Robeson lived abroad, avoiding the simmering racial conflicts in the United States. He appeared in Othello and The Hairy Ape, toured Europe, and even visited Russia.
In the late 1930s he also reexamined his passive stance toward political issues, embracing communism and decided to return to America to fight racism. Stateside, Robeson busied himself with protesting against lynching, picketing the White House, and refusing to perform for segregated audiences. Even with his awakened interest in politics, Robeson maintained a busy acting and singing schedule in the early 1940s, first appearing in a radio performance of Ballad for Americans and later in the first American version of Othello to include an African American in the lead role.
His controversial political positions, including a suggestion that blacks should refuse to fight if the United States went to war with Russia, soon caused repercussions. When appearing before HUAC, the Committee asked him why he didn't relocate to Russia. He replied: "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." The U.S. State Department revoked Robeson's passport in 1950, which meant he would be forced to remain in the United States, where he was blacklisted. When he completed his autobiography in 1958, even the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune chose not to review it.
After his passport was reinstated in 1958, he traveled once again to Britain and Russia, where he remained popular. Following stage work in Europe and Australia, Robeson returned to the United States in 1963 due to declining health. Isolated from many former friends and supporters, Robeson attempted to commit suicide twice. He also suffered a number of breakdowns and became dependent on psychotropic drugs. It was ironic to many that throughout the '60s and '70s, as African Americans began to actively fight for racial equality in the United States, Robeson, an outspoken advocate of these issues, remained withdrawn and on the sidelines. Americans, however, didn't forget him. On April 15, 1973, admirers gathered at New York's Carnegie Hall to celebrate his 75th birthday. Robeson was admitted to Presbyterian University Hospital in Philadelphia on December 28, 1975 following a massive stroke. He died on January 23, 1976