Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).
In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.
His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.
From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.
Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.
He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.
Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.
But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.
In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.
In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.
In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.
It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns) in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.
When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:
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. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.
He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.