Historical Markers
Paul Robeson Historical Marker
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Paul Robeson

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
4591 Walnut St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
April 8, 1991

Behind the Marker

Portrait of Paul Robeson Smiling for Camera, 1926
Portrait of Paul Robeson smiling for the camera, 1926.
It's impossible to separate the triumph from the tragedy in the story of Paul Robeson, and it's a mark of Robeson's resolve that he navigated the shoals of both with an unshakeable moral compass. An immense man of immense talent and conviction, he refused to compromise his conscience or accept anything less than dignity and freedom. Promethean, he was revered and reviled, part Renaissance man, part dreamer, and part legend. And what a legend he left … on the gridiron … on the stage … in the concert hall … and in his unwavering insistence on civil rights and free speech for all.

The son of a runaway slave and a Philadelphia school teacher, Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., on April 9, 1898. Growing up in a prominent black family - his father, William Robeson, became a respected Presbyterian minister - Robeson had little experience with prejudice. That changed when he arrived at Rutgers in 1915, an academic scholarship in one hand and a football in the other.

Robeson dressed as an emperor, sitting on a throne.
Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones, circa 1933.
A few teammates made it clear they would not play beside a black; in practice one day, they beat him up and pulled out his fingernails. But at a regal 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Robeson, an offensive and defensive end, refused to break. His grit and ability ultimately won them over, but he never washed the bitter taste of racism from his mouth. By graduation in 1919 - as Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian - Robeson added letters in baseball, track, and basketball to gridiron exploits that twice earned him All-America status. Philadelphia sportswriter Robert Maxwell insisted Robeson was "without a doubt, the best football player in the country."

Robeson played some professionally after Rutgers to pay for law school at Columbia, and then walked away from a legal career when a stenographer at his first law firm refused to take dictation from a black man. Robeson said later that he could never be part of "any profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to me." Instead, he turned to the theater.

Joining the Provincetown Players in 1923, he starred in Eugene O'Neill's biracial drama All God's Chillun Got Wing, and the next year the playwright revived The Emperor Jones specifically for the actor. Robeson's scorching interpretation of the power-drunk dictator led critic George Jean Nathan to call him "one of the most thoroughly eloquent, impressive and convincing actors" he had ever seen. The following year, wrapping his rich and resonant baritone around a program of Negro spirituals, Robeson added concert recitals to his resume. A sensation as a soloist, he embarked on extended tours of the United States and Europe.

Paul Robeson as Othello, standing over English actress Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona. London, 1930.
Paul Robeson as Othello, standing over English actress Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona....
The more Robeson sang abroad, the more his voice evolved into an instrument of righteousness. He embraced the folk songs of other cultures and the work songs of laborers everywhere - believing they "expressed the same soulful quality that I knew in Negro music" - and learned a variety of languages to sing these songs with more conviction and understanding. For Robeson, music was mankind's common bond.

Growing convinced that Europe was more racially tolerant than America, he settled in London in 1928. There, between extensive concert bookings, Robeson starred in two groundbreaking stage productions. The first, the London premiere of Jerome Kern and markerOscar Hammerstein's Show Boat, gave him the song that would become his signature -"Ol' Man River."  (By changing the words in later performances, he turned it from a song of resignation to one of struggle.) The second, in 1930, was the first staging of Shakespeare's Othello with a black - rather than black-faced - Moor surrounded by a white cast. It took New York until 1943 to follow the lead; Robeson's triumphant Broadway Othello ran almost 300 performances.

Through these years, Robeson also made a series of mostly unfulfilling forays into Hollywood - the exceptions being film versions of Show Boat and The Emperor Jones. For black performers in movies, good roles were not just scarce, they tended toward demeaning stereotypes. He never contained his contempt for these stereotypes.

Paul Robeson hauling cotton in the movie "Show Boat", 1951
Movie still of Paul Robeson in Show Boat, 1936.
In 1934, Robeson embarked on his first concert tour of Russia, and what he convinced himself he saw - a proletarian society free of racial prejudice - so profoundly affected him that it blinded him, too; he never allowed himself to see Stalin's own abuses and totalitarian rule. "Here, for the first time in my life," he said, "I walk in full human dignity." He became an open convert to communism's ideal - though never a member of the Communist Party - and when he returned to the United States, he ramped up his public outrage against injustice. Promoting black pride and self-determination, he picketed the White House, lobbied for the integration of baseball, and refused to sing for segregated audiences. "I saw," he explained, "the connection between problems of all oppressed people and the necessity of the artist to participate fully."
Paul Robeson, American singer, is shown (left) as he was congratulated by Dr. William E.B. Dubois, American editor and Author, after Robeson addressed the red-sponsored world "Peace" conference in Paris.
W. E. B. Dubois congratulating Paul Robeson after his address to the world

Despite his bluntness and his politics, Robeson remained a popular performer as long as the Soviets and Americans remained allies through World War II. With the onset of the Cold War, though, he was chilled by the anti-Communist winds that blew across the nation. Bookings dried up. He was black-listed at home - he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee - and, in 1950, the State Department revoked his passport. No longer free to travel, he once stood at the American border and sang to an audience of 40,000 Canadians. His reputation tarnished, his career in America never recovered.

But with the return of his passport in 1958, Robeson left on a lengthy tour of Europe and the Soviet Union, where his star never dimmed, then on to Australia and New Zealand. A series of health crises led him back to New York in 1963, and after his wife's death in 1965, Robeson lived in relative seclusion, suffering a variety of physical ailments and sinking into depression. He twice attempted suicide. In the early 1970s, he moved to Philadelphia to live with his sister, and though he died a virtual recluse in 1976, more than 5,000 admirers attended his funeral.

The end of the Cold War brought Paul Robeson something of a resurrection. In 1995, the College Football Hall of Fame finally erased its "moral" objections and belatedly welcomed him into the shrine. His 100th birthday was celebrated with concerts around the world, a posthumous Grammy, and reissues of his recordings on CD. And in 2004, the country that once revoked his passport honored him with a first-class postage stamp.
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