- Robeson, Paul Leroy Bustill
- (1898-1976)American singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson was born the son of a former slave in Princeton, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers College. An outstanding scholar and athlete, he became the first African American all-American in football in 1917 and again in 1918. Following his graduation in 1919, Robeson went to Columbia University Law School, where he obtained his degree in 1923 and began working in a New York City law firm. Following a racial slight, he gave up law and joined Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players and starred in All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones in 1924. Robeson began his solo singing career with a performance of gospel songs at Carnegie Hall in 1925 and was celebrated for singing and acting in various musicals, most famously for his performance of “Ol’ Man River” in Showboat (1928). In 1930, he achieved critical acclaim for his portrayal of Othello in London, and he went on to appear in 11 movies, including Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), and Proud Valley (1940), in addition to film versions of his stage successes. He was the best-known black entertainer of his day.Embittered by racial prejudice in the United States, Robeson spent more time performing in Europe after 1928. In the 1930s, he visited the Soviet Union and became an advocate of communism. He went to Spain in 1938 to support the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. He returned to the United States at the outbreak of World War II and achieved great success when he became the first African American to play the lead in Othello in the United States in 1943. After the war, Robeson continued to support left-wing causes and was a founder and chair of the Progressive Party. His political sympathies and outspoken remarks led to his being investigated by congressional committees, which labeled him a communist and led to his being blacklisted as an entertainer. His passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958, effectively destroying his career. The Soviet Union awarded Robeson the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, and he left the United States in 1958 and did not return until 1963. He lived out his remaining years in virtual seclusion but was remembered with several awards for his contributions to the arts and civil rights.See also Cinema; Literature and theater.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.