Remembering Activist Paul Robeson
Alicia Perez, Communications Pre-Professional at the Schomburg Center, reflects on the lasting influence of activist Paul Robeson on his birthday:
Saturday, April 9 marked the 118th birthday of the late athlete, singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). From the moment he became the valedictorian of Rutgers University in 1919—the third black person in history and the only one enrolled at the time—Robeson began tearing down boundaries, and did so across each of the industries he tackled, from sports to the arts, and throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1930s, the New York Times hailed Robeson as compelling, stimulating, and distinguished for a number of his performances, particularly after his first critically-acclaimed play, The Emperor Jones. You can research images from this play in our Photographs and Prints division at the Schomburg Center.
His son, Paul Robeson Jr., chronicled his father’s life and career in the biography The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939, which we have in the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division (along with the newly added book to our collections, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary by Herald Horne). In The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, Robeson Jr. remembers his father as “an original. He had no counterpart. During his formative years, he cultivated the image of a free spirit who came and went, belonging to multitudes but owned by no one.”
His son certainly wasn’t the only one to think so. In the Negroes of New York Collection archived in our Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division, biographer Alyse Abrams in 1939 wrote that he was unparalleled because he "best expresses the meaning of his people through his music, for his best brings to the world the challenge of his people's spirituals."
Though his outspoken opinions on racism and war put him in hot water with the United States government, Robeson continued to fight for justice. His legacy has left a lasting impression particularly in the world of cinema, with director Steve McQueen recently announcing that he is making a film based on the life of Robeson, hopefully commemorating him in the way he deserves.