Paul Robeson

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American actor, singer, writer and political and civil rights activist.


Robeson was born in 1898 in New Jersey. After the early death of his mother, he was raised by his father, a preacher and escaped slave, who impressed upon him the need for self improvement through education. Taking this to heart, he won a scholarship to Rutgers University where he excelled in both academic and sporting fields (he made All-American in American Football), and went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University.

It was as an actor and singer he found fame though, including acclaimed performances in "Emperor Jones", "Porgy and Bess" and as, in 1930, Othello in England, when no US company would employ him for the role. He reprised the role in New York in 1943. His repertoire of African-American folk songs helped bring these to much wider attention both inside the US and abroad - in particular his stunning rendition of 'Go Down Moses'.

On his frequent trips overseas he was highly critical of the conditions experienced by black Americans, especially in the segregated southern states, and this outspokenness, together with sympathies expressed towards the people of the Soviet Union found him branded a communist by the McCarthyite HUAC committee and the US State Department denied him a passport. This largely stemmed from his belief that the African-American slaves shared a common bond with the pre-revolutionary serfs of Russia. Undeterred, he still occasionally sang overseas, including a performance at the Welsh National Eisteddfod conducted over the telephone.

Prior to his passport's return in 1958, he wrote a book, "Here I Stand", which eloquently makes an empassioned case for concerted action to right the inequities of the Jim Crow system. Sadly the remainder of his life was plagued by ill health and depression and his appearances were relatively few, before to his death in 1976.