Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

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Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, to Anna Louisa and William Drew Robeson, an escaped slave. Robeson's mother died from a fire when he was 6 and his clergyman father moved the family to Somerville, where the youngster excelled in academics and sang in church.

Robeson made a splash in the theater world as the lead in the controversial 1924 production of All God's Chillun Got Wings in New York City, and the following year, he starred in the London staging of The Emperor Jones—both by playwright Eugene O'Neill. Robeson also entered film when he starred in African-American director Oscar Micheaux's 1925 work, Body and Soul.   

Although he was not a cast member of the original Broadway production of Show Boat, an adaptation of an Edna Furber novel, Robeson was prominently involved in the 1928 London production. It was there that he first earned renown for singing "Ol' Man River," a song destined to become his signature tune.

In the late 1920s, Robeson and his family relocated to Europe, where he continued to establish himself as an international star through such big-screen features as Borderline (1930). He starred in the 1933 movie remake of The Emperor Jones and would be featured in six British films over the next few years, including the desert drama Jericho and musical Big Fella, both released in 1937. During this period, Robeson also starred in the second big-screen adaptation of Show Boat (1936), with Hattie McDaniel and Irene Dunne. 

Robeson's last movie would be the Hollywood production of Tales of Manhattan (1942). He criticized the film, which also featured legends like Henry Fonda, Ethel Waters and Rita Hayworth, for its demeaning portrayal of African Americans.

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In the late 1920s, Robeson and his family relocated to Europe, where he continued to establish himself as an international star through such big-screen features as Borderline (1930). He starred in the 1933 movie remake of The Emperor Jones and would be featured in six British films over the next few years, including the desert drama Jericho and musical Big Fella, both released in 1937. During this period, Robeson also starred in the second big-screen adaptation of Show Boat (1936), with Hattie McDaniel and Irene Dunne. 

Robeson's last movie would be the Hollywood production of Tales of Manhattan (1942). He criticized the film, which also featured legends like Henry Fonda, Ethel Waters and Rita Hayworth, for its demeaning portrayal of African Americans.

When he was 17, Robeson earned a scholarship to attend Rutgers University, the third African American to do so, and became one of the institution's most decorated students. He received top honors for his debate and oratory skills, won 15 letters in four varsity sports, was elected Phi Beta Kappa and became his class valedictorian.

From 1920 to 1923, Robeson attended Columbia University's Law School, teaching Latin and playing pro football on the weekends to pay tuition. In 1921, he wed fellow Columbia student, journalist Eslanda Goode. The two would be married for more than 40 years and have a son together in 1927, Paul Robeson Jr.

Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer in 1923, but left after encountering severe racism at his firm. With the encouragement of Eslanda, who would become his manager, he turned fully to the stage.

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Robeson published his biography, Here I Stand, in 1958, the same year that he won the right to have his passport reinstated. He again traveled internationally and received a number of accolades for his work, but damage had been done, as he experienced debilitating depression and related health problems. 

Robeson and his family returned to the United States in 1963. After Eslanda's death in 1965, the artist lived with his sister. He died from a stroke on January, 1976, at the age of 77, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.