Paul Robeson

The life and times of the actor, singer and human rights activist from America who had a particular affinity with Wales and the Welsh.

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Robeson's early life

Paul Leroy Robeson, the youngest of five children, was born on 9 April 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to the Rev. William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson.  His father was born into slavery. His mother, a teacher, died when he was only five years old. The America of Robeson’s youth held little opportunity for young blacks but Robeson’s upbringing taught him how important it was to be treated fairly and to never give up.

In his Somerville New Jersey High School, Robeson was an outstanding student excelling in sports, drama, singing, academics, and debating. But he learned early that while his great talents could win him respect and applause, they did not bring full acceptance. One of his early teachers said about his famous student:

“He is the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince. Still, I can’t forget that he is a Negro.”

Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College, New Jersey in 1915. Despite the openly racist and violent opposition he faced, Robeson became a brilliant athlete excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track.

College and Acting

He went on to study law at Columbia New York and received his degree in 1923. There he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who was the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory.  Robeson worked as a law clerk in New York, but once again faced discrimination and soon left the practice because a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.

Robeson returned to his childhood love of drama and singing. He starred in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924, creating the starring role.  While the racial subject matter of the play spurred controversy and protest, he went on to star in another play by O'Neill - Emperor Jones.  He is most widely recognized from the musical Showboat, where he changed the lines of the song "Old Man River". His eleven films included Body and Soul, Jericho, and ProudValley, made in Wales. 

Robeson's first visit to Wales

From his first accidental meeting with Welsh miners in Londonin 1929, Paul Robeson felt a strong affinity with Wales.  He saw a culture built around the values of community, work and chapel, and a musical and performance tradition born out of struggle and oppression.  

Robeson visited Walesmany times. He toured South Walesin the 1930s, performing concerts at Aberdare and Mountain Ash. He captured the sympathy of the miners of Waleswhen he sang in Jack Jones, a 1939 film ProudValleywith Rachel Thomas, as the character David Goliath.  In 1949, Robeson said “There is no place in the world I like more than Wales.”

Robeson’s concert career reads like a world traveller's passport: New York, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Paris, Holland, London, Moscow, and Nairobi.  His travels taught him that racism was not as prevalent in Europeas it was in the United States. In the United States, he couldn't enter theatres through the front door or sing without intimidation and protest, but in London he was welcomed and received standing ovations. Robeson believed in the universality of music and that by performing spirituals and other cultures’ folk songs, he could promote intercultural understanding. As a result, he became a citizen of the world, singing for peace and equality in twenty-five languages.

Civil Rights

During the 1940's Robeson continued to have success on the stage, in film, and in concert halls, but remained face to face with prejudice and racism. After finding the Soviet Unionto be a tolerant and friendly nation, he began to protest the growing Cold War hostilities between the United Statesand the USSR. He began to question why African-Americans should support a government that did not treat them as equals. At a time when dissent was hardly tolerated, Robeson was looked upon as an enemy by his government. In 1947, he was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

In 1950, the US State Department cancelled his passport. His connection with Walesand support from the Welsh people continued. In October 1957 he addressed the Miners' Eisteddfod in Porthcawl via a secret transatlantic. At this historic event Robeson called for “Peace, dignity and abundance for all”.

The 1958 Eisteddfod

In July 1958, Robeson recovered his passport. In August 1958, Paul and Eslanda Robeson visited Walesand were the special guests of the Ebbw Vale National Eisteddfod.  At the Eisteddfod, Robeson spoke of his love for Wales, saying “You have shaped my life – I have learned from you.”

When asked what he wished to be given to mark his visit, he chose a Welsh hymn book because it reminded him of his own people’s rich musical heritage.

In October 1958, he attended the Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl, where he was presented with a miniature miners’ lamp.  He also revisited old friends at Talygarn Miners’ Rehabilitation Centre.

The years of repression, attack and constant activity inevitably took their toll on Robeson.   Ill health forced his retirement. 

Paul Robeson died on January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia. 

Robeson's legacy has been an inspiration to millions around the world. His travels across America and abroad, opened the world's eyes to oppression.Through his stage and film performances he opened doors to inter-racial performances. His courageous stance against oppression and inequality in part led to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  His relevance to our future here in Wales will remain as strong as ever, as others continue to discover him.  His life provides an illuminating picture of the recent past which continues to shape our present day lives.

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