Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. He was the youngest son of five children born to Presbyterian minister Reverend William Drew Robeson (1845-1918) and former schoolteacher Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson (1853-1904). He was the grandson of slaves and the son of a minister who escaped slavery and became one of Rutgers University’s most famous and accomplished alumni.
In 1915, Robeson was awarded a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University. He was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society and Rutgers’ Cap And Skull Honor Society. He was valedictorian of his graduating class in 1919. Rutgers awarded Robeson honorary Master of Arts degree in 1932 and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on his 75th birthday in 1973.
In addition to his academic achievements, Robeson had an outstanding athletic career as the first Black football player at the University winning 15 varsity letters in baseball, football, basketball, and track and field. He was named to the All American Football Team twice in spite of open racism and violence expressed by his teammates. In 1995, he was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame.
In 1923, Robeson earned a law degree from the Columbia Law School. There, he met his wife Eslanda Cordoza Goode, the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory. Robeson took a job with a law firm after graduation, but left the firm and the practice of law when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He decided to use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture.
What followed was a brilliant career as an actor and concert singer which spanned nearly four decades. Robeson made his concert debut in 1925 with a highly successful program of Black music. He went on to such stage successes in Show Boat, Porgy and Bess and Othello, which was hailed by some critics as the play’s greatest interpretation. He starred in 13 films between the 1920s and the early 1940s, but decided to stop making movies until there were better opportunities for blacks.
Paul Robeson used his deep baritone voice to promote black spirituals, to share the cultures with other countries, and to support the social movements of his time. He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the United States, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Soviet Union.
Robeson became known as a citizen of the world, as comfortable with the people of Moscow and Nairobi as with the people of Harlem. Wherever he traveled, Robeson championed the cause of the common person. Among his friends, he counted future African Leader Jomo Kenyatta, India’s Nehru, anarchist Emma Goldman and writers James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
During the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, every attempt was made to silence and discredit Paul Robeson because of his political views and dedication to civil rights. In 1958, he embarked on a successful three-year tour of Europe and Australia. Unfortunately, illness ended his professional career in 1961. He lived the remainder of his years as a private citizen in his sister’s home in Philadelphia. He died on January 23, 1976 at the age of 77.
For his steadfast commitment to his social conscience, Paul Robeson – activist, scholar, artist, athlete – was shunted from the center of America’s cultural stage to its wings. For a generation, his memory was obscured and his achievements forgotten, but the centennial of his 1898 birth has sparked new debate about his place in our history. The spotlight that once again shines on this Rutgers alumnus illuminates a rich legacy – a man of fierce dignity striving against immense adversity.