Paul Leroy Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., on April 9, 1898, the fifth and last child of Maria Louisa Bustill and William Drew Robeson. His father was a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family. In 1915, Paul Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University.
Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won 15 varsity letters in sports (baseball, basketball, and track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team.
He received the Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society, and graduated as valedictorian.
However, it wasn’t until 1995, 19 years after his death, that Paul Robeson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. At Columbia Law School (1919-1923), Robeson met and married Eslanda Cordoza Goode, who was to become the first Black woman to head a pathology laboratory. He took a job with a law firm, but left when a White secretary refused to take dictation from him.
He left the practice of law to use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture. In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello, for which he won the Donaldson Award for Best Acting Performance (1944). He also won numerous other awards throughout his acting career.
Robeson used his deep baritone voice to promote Black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time.
He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the U.S., Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. During the 1940s, Robeson continued to perform and to speak out against racism, in support of labor, and for peace.
In 1950, the U.S. revoked Robeson’s passport, leading to an eight-year battle to rescue it and to travel again. During those years, Robeson studied Chinese, met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects for world peace, published his autobiography, Here I Stand, and sang at Carnegie Hall.
Two major labor-related events took place during this time. In 1952 and 1953, he held two concerts at Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canadian border, singing to 30,000-40,000 people in both countries. In 1957, he made a transatlantic radiophone broadcast from New York to coal miners in Wales.
In 1960, Robeson made his last concert tour to New Zealand and Australia. In ill health, Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died on Jan. 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.
It’s easy to see that Paul Leroy Robeson was an accomplished individual and made something of himself in life despite all the turmoil and things that tried to set him back.