Paul Robeson was a major world figure in the first half of the 20th Century as an actor, singer, performer and political and cultural activist.
He was born in Princeton, USA, his father had been a slave, and later a minister, while his mother came from a Quaker family. He was one of the first black students to attend Rutgers University, where he was an outstanding athlete. He entered the law but left after a secretary refused to take dictation from him. Thereafter Paul made his way as an actor on stage and in film and as an outstanding bass singer, performing spirituals as well as arias and songs from around the world. His performance in the stage production, and later film version, of Show Boat singing Ol' Man River made him famous.
Paul visited England many times, often for lengthy periods. He first came in 1922 to appear in a play. In 1930 he starred as Othello in a stage production of the play, with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona. He appeared in a number of British films, the best of which was The Proud Valley, filmed in Wales. In 1938 he sang at the unveiling of a memorial to Welsh International Brigades at Mountain Ash.
He took an increasingly political stance during the 1930s. Paul toured Republican Spain and spoke out against the treatment of black people in the United States, especially segregation and lynching. Though he never publicly joined the Communist Party of the United States he was close to them politically, and visited the Soviet Union on a number of occasions.
With the advent of the Cold War he came under increasing attack by the United States government and the FBI. In 1949 his concert in Peekskill, New York was viciously attacked by the police and a McCarthyite mob.
In May 1949 he visited the New International Society in Moss side, Manchester and sang outside to a huge crowd.
In 1950 the United States government withdrew Paul's passport explicitly because of his attacks on US government policy. In 1956 he was called before the 'House Un-American Activities Committee' and vigorously defended himself and his beliefs. A campaign entitled ‘Let Paul Sing' was launched in his support and the library has a poster for a meeting addressed by Len Johnson.
Paul's passport was finally returned in 1958 and he moved to England, spending the next 5 years on concert tours. In later years he suffered much ill-health and returned to the United States. He died in 1976 aged 77.
In December 2008 a tribute to Paul was unveiled at the Marx Memorial Library in London
Sources about Paul Robeson in our collection
Martin Bauml Duberman - Paul Robeson (1989)
Philip s Foner (editor) - Paul Robeson speaks: writings, speeches, interviews, 1918-1974 (1978)
The editors of Freedomways - Paul Robeson, the great forerunner (1978)
Eslanda Goode Robeson - Paul Robeson (1930)
Paul Robeson with Lloyd L. Brown /with a new introduction by Sterling Stuckey - Here I Stand (1988)
Paul Robeson, Jr. - The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: an artist's journey, 1898-1939 (2001)
Susan Robeson - The Whole World in his Hands: Paul Robeson - a family memoir in words and pictures (1999)
Marie Seton - Paul Robeson (1958)
Jeffrey Stewart - Paul Robeson: artist and citizen (1998)
Allan Thompson - Paul Robeson: artist and activist, on records, radio and television (2004)