Paul Robeson

Photo of Paul Robeson by Madame Yevonde c'33


I first became aware of Paul Robeson from watching a BBC television special about his life. In learning what a struggle he had been through, I was moved to write a song about him simply entitled "Paul Robeson".which you can now hear at Union Songs as an Mp3 at Mark Gregory's Union Songs. The following is a brief essay of his life:

The son of a former slave, American black actor and bass-baritone Paul Robeson, b. Princeton, N.J., Apr. 9, 1898, d. Jan. 23, 1976, was one of the most distinguished Americans of the 20th century. After graduating with Phi Beta Kappa honors from Rutgers University, where he twice received All-American football awards, he attended Columbia Law School and practised law briefly before turning to the theatre. Robeson's performances in Eugene O'Neill's plays during the early 1920s established him as a brilliant actor, and for two decades he was hailed as one of the greatest bass-baritones in the world. In the course of his many travels abroad, he was greatly lionized. He played the title role in the 1943 Broadway production of Othello, which ran a record 296 performances. His acting in that play earned him, in 1944, the Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for best diction in the American theatre and the Donaldson Award for best actor. Robeson championed the cause of the oppressed throughout his life, insisting that as an artist he had no choice but to do so. A trip to the Soviet Union early in his career had made him a lifelong friend of the USSR, which in 1952 awarded him the Stalin Peace Prize. Following World War II, when he took an uncompromising stand against segregation and lynching in the United States and advocated friendship with the Soviet Union, a long, intense campaign was mounted against him. Thereafter he was unable to earn a living as an artist in the United States and was also denied a passport. Finally in 1958 he was allowed to go to Great Britain. He returned in 1963 in ill health and spent the last years of his life in seclusion.

"The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" shall exist in the United States and gives Congress the power to enforce this article by legislation. Although this amendment, which was ratified in 1865, had been preceded by a federal restriction on the importation of slaves in 1808, by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and by legislative bans against slavery in many of the states prior to 1865, the 13th Amendment was the first unconditional constitutional action to terminate the institution of slavery and the first of the amendments to protect the equal status of black people (others are the 14th, 15th, and 24th Amendments). The 13th Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include prohibition of public or private racial discrimination in the disposal of property, in making and enforcing contracts and in private employment. "

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