Although Paul Robeson achieved enormous fame during a roller-coaster life that ended in discredit over his politics, few students who attended a lecture about him in Kreider Hall on Feb. 22 had ever heard of the actor-singer-activist.
History Professor Lamont Yeakey of Cal State L.A., who is currently writing a biography of Robeson, first asked the audience who they considered the greatest singer of all time. Opinions ranged from Frank Sinatra to Billie Holiday. He then asked audience members to name the best actor of all time. Robert De Niro and Julia Roberts were among the list of favorites. When asked to name the top athlete, there were quick mentions of Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali.
Paul Robeson, Yeakey said, was once considered the nation’s top actor, singer and athlete, practically simultaneously. And though his fame spanned the 1920s into the `50s, little is now said about the super-achiever.
Yeakey was first attracted to Robeson out of anger. He discovered him in the `70s, and was angered that he had virtually been expunged from the history books. He lectures now in hopes of re-establishing Robeson’s place in history.
Born in 1898, in 1916 Robeson was only the third black student to enroll at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He made Phi Beta Kappa and the All-American football team — firsts for a black university student.
He went on to graduate from Columbia University Law School, but never practiced law. He chose instead to become an actor, appearing first in premieres of Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun’s Got Wings” and “The Emperor Jones.” In 1924 Robeson first performed what was to become his signature song, “Ol’ Man River” from the stage musical, “Show Boat.”
In the 1940s, his recording of “Ballad for America,” a plea for racial harmony, eventually out-sold Kate Smith’s popular version of “God Bless America.”
During his height of fame in the 1930s, Robeson toured the world and spent a considerable amount of time in the Soviet Union, eventually embracing communism because he felt it truly treated all people, including minorities, as equals.
During the McCarthy period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, many American communists, including Robeson, were attacked for their beliefs. Performers like Robeson were banned from performing in public, and the once-popular singer and actor was even stripped of his passport. He was unable to perform in countries where he was still welcome.
Many who had formerly praised Robeson now treated him as a pariah. But he maintained his beliefs, still speaking for racial equality and fair treatment for all Americans.
During the cold war era, Rutgers University went so far as to expunge Robeson from its records of All Americans. His name was eventually restored in 1989.
Now his message and his legacy live on with scholars like Yeakey who are devoting studies to Robeson and his life’s work.