1998 marked the centennial of Paul Robeson's birth. On April 9, 1898, an eighth child was born to Maria Luisa Bustill, the Quaker abolitionist, and William Drew, the former slave who had escaped to the north, gone to college, and become a minister. Paul was brought up to value education as much as his parents did.
Paul Robeson attended Rutgers University (he was the third black student in that school's history) in New Jersey, where he was an All-American football player and excelled in other sports as well. When he graduated, he was valedictorian of his class. He enrolled in Princeton Law School and became a lawyer, but due to the racism of that time, he had trouble finding employment.
It was this inability to move forward as a lawyer which compelled Robeson to change his life's course. Thus, he began the acting and singing career by which so many people came to love and admire him.
Robeson had a natural talent for performing and an enormously deep voice. When he appeared in the Broadway musical, Showboat, he sang a song that will always be remembered by the sound of that voice. "Ol' Man River" is now considered classic Paul Robeson. He also played the title role in three different productions of Othello, both in America and England, and in movies such as Sanders of the River, King Solomon's Mines, and The Proud Valley. He was greatly admired as an entertainer.
Robeson was deeply political. He believed in justice for all people. Even before his fame was at its peak, he traveled the world performing in benefits and speaking out for worker's rights, racial equality and peace. He fought for racial justice in America, but he also devoted his time, energy and money to groups outside the American black community. For instance, he spoke out against the Nazi's persecution of the Jews (among others) in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. Along with many other Americans, he participated in the Spanish Civil war against the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.
Of all his pronounced ideologies, perhaps the most controversial was his support of communism. Despite the growing fear of communism in the United States, Robeson remained steadfast to the idea of worker's rights and even to the Soviet Union, which was at that time still attempting to establish a working communist society. It was not uncommon for people suspected of sympathizing with the Soviets to be brought before a governmental panel called the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Many artists and actors were brought before this committee. This committee declared that Robeson's outspoken support of communism was unpatriotic and accused him, for instance, of trying to set up a Soviet state in the American South. The committee was powerful: It managed to take away Robeson's passport, and to coerce other black leaders into testifying against Robeson, but no one could prove any of the ridiculous accusations.
Robeson eventually recovered his passport and was able to tour and perform again for awhile. When he became ill, he left the stage and managed to live a private life for a short time.
Although he faded from public view, his work and dedication to political causes remained active. He died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia. The courage of his convictions and his strength before adversity make Paul Robeson a hero to people around the world.