It was fall 1915, and Paul Robeson, only the third African-American student in Rutgers University’s 149-year history, had played football on a mixed-race team at nearby Somerville High School, where he was considered an exceptional athlete. But up until that time, the Rutgers team, for which he was now trying out, had been all-white. 

When Robeson showed up for practice, the players piled on, breaking his nose and dislocating his shoulder. During the 10 days that it took him to recover, he seriously considered quitting football. Then he remembered what his father, a former slave turned pastor, had said—that in class or on the field, “I wasn’t just there on my own,” Robeson told a reporter in 1944. “I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football and wanted to go to college, and, as their representative, I had  to show that I could take whatever was handed out.”

He returned to the practice field, where during one play a teammate stomped on Robeson’s hand with a cleated shoe in  an attempt to break it. What he didn’t  break was Robeson’s determination. The 17-year-old rose from the turf and grabbed the player, only to be interrupted by the coach, George Foster “Sandy” Sanford, who shouted, “Robey, you’re on the varsity!”

“He didn’t just accept abuse; he pushed back,” says Wayne Glasker, an associate professor specializing in African-American and 20th-century U.S. history at Rutgers University–Camden.

“There was an awareness of the pain of what it meant to be a black man in American society while simultaneously realizing what he had to do to succeed,” adds Edward Ramsamy, chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “You always see that tension in Robeson.”

He was also displaying his talents. In football, Robeson went on to become Rutgers’ star player, hailed by the press as a “superman” and a “genius” and named All-American—Rutgers’ first—two years in a row. He excelled at everything else he put his mind to, from academics to oratory to singing. 

But that moment at practice, that pushing back, also hinted at the political activist Robeson would become—a civil rights pioneer whose outspokenness in the first half of the 20th century would not go unpunished. “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery,” he would say at a rally more than 20 years after graduating. “I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

Robeson's early years


Paul Robeson spent the early years of his life in Princeton, New Jersey. His mother, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, died when he was 5. His father, William Robeson, was a former slave who became a minister. Robeson was born in the parsonage of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, where his father was the minister until he was forced to resign.

courtesy of Howard University Libraries; by Nick Romanenko

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. Although a Northern town, it was highly segregated due in part to the many Southerners attending Princeton University. Paul’s father, William Robeson, was pastor of the all-black Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church; his mother, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, was a teacher. The youngest of five children, he was 3 years old when William, who’d escaped slavery during the Civil War and later earned two master’s degrees, was forced to resign his post after he hosted an assembly at the white-controlled church to highlight violence against African Americans in the South.

Two years later, Maria Louisa died in a house fire. William, who’d been forced to haul ashes and transport university students in a carriage to earn a living, never displayed bitterness about the family’s misfortunes, even as he struggled to support Paul’s siblings who were attending college.

“Paul Robeson had tremendous respect for his father and his father’s perseverance,” Ramsamy says. “And then there were the values Paul’s father instilled in him. If you want to understand what formed Paul Robeson later on, those particular aspects of his childhood are very important.”

The classics, for instance. William tutored Paul and his siblings in Greek, Latin, and philosophy. “He also taught him to stand on principle,” Ramsamy says—most importantly, the belief in racial equality. “Just as in youth he had refused to remain a slave, so in all the years of his manhood he disdained to be an Uncle Tom,” Paul wrote of his father in his 1958 memoir, Here I Stand. “From him we learned, and never doubted it, that the Negro was in every way the equal of the white man. And we fiercely resolved to prove it.”

Robeson's early years


When he was 12, Paul Robeson moved to Somerville, New Jersey, with his father, who had been named the pastor of the St. Thomas A.M.E. Zion Church. Robeson played on the Somerville High School football team. His academic and athletic talents emerged at the high school, which was integrated.

courtesy of

By the time Paul was 8, William did just that. Disillusioned with the Presbyterian ministry, he joined the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, an independent black denomination, and was eventually offered a pastorship in Somerville, New Jersey, where in high school Paul’s talents blossomed.

“Everything for which he’d later be famous—singing, oratory, athletics, acting—the first time we have evidence of him doing it was in Somerville,” says Randall Westbrook GSE’95,’07, a 30-year resident of the borough and part-time lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

Robeson also enjoyed something of a respite from overt racism. Somerville, unlike Princeton in 1912, had an integrated high school. Senior year, he aced a state exam that earned him a full scholarship to Rutgers, where, between 1915 and 1919, he continued to rack up accolades. Aside from football, he played baseball and basketball and was a member of the track-and-field team, earning 12 varsity letters altogether. He also excelled at debate and oratory, and earned membership into Phi Beta Kappa and Cap and Skull, the latter as one of four students honored for all-around excellence.

As impressive as his record was, Robeson was a black man living in a Jim Crow world, where lynchings were still common in the South. On the football field, opposing teams shouted epithets and landed cheap shots. But he took pride in never using his hands illegally. At 6’3” and roughly 200 pounds, he was also stronger than most and didn’t hesitate to make the occasional point. In one game, against a West Virginia team, a white opponent warned Robeson not to touch him. After the ball was snapped, Robeson flattened the player, then said,  “I touched you that time. How did you  like it?”

Robeson's Rutgers Years


Paul Robeson lettered in 12 varsity sports while attending Rutgers from 1915 to 1919. He was an All-American football player, considered one of the best players in the game.  He played basketball and baseball and was a member of the track team as well. He also played professional football while attending Columbia University Law School.  

courtesy of Rutgers University Archives/Special Collections

During his sophomore year, he was benched for a game. Washington and Lee University had refused to take the field against a black man, and because it was Rutgers’ 150th anniversary, university administrators didn’t want to disrupt the festivities. Sanford acquiesced, but the experience was so demoralizing that the coach refused to succumb to political pressure thereafter. Regardless, Robeson wasn’t permitted to stay in the same accommodations as his teammates while traveling, and he couldn’t mix with white classmates at formal social gatherings.

“It’s always interesting, when someone arrives on campus or in a city where they have proven they belong and, yet, are confronted with people denying their place there,” says Salamishah Tillet, associate director of the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University–Newark.

Robeson, however, never lashed out. He had learned “a certain protective tactic of Negro life in America,” he recalled in Here I Stand. “Even while demonstrating that he is really an equal (and, strangely, the proof must be superior performance!), the Negro must never appear to be challenging white superiority. Climb up if you can—but don’t act ‘uppity.’ … Above all, do nothing to give them cause to fear you, for then the oppressing hand, which might at times ease up a little, will surely become a fist to knock you down again!”

Once, Robeson was just about knocked down. Toward the end of his junior year, his beloved “Pop” died at the age of 73—not before insisting, however, that Paul compete in an upcoming oratorical contest at Rutgers, no matter what. So, three days after William’s death, Paul obeyed his father and won first place, as he had the two previous years and would his senior year.

Robeson's Rutgers Years


Paul Robeson sits with fellow players of the 1918 Rutgers football team for their official portrait. He was also active as a member of the Varsity Club. One of his crowning achievements was selection to the Cap and Skull honor society during his senior year, one of only four students chosen for all-around excellence. 

courtesy of Rutgers University Archives/Special Collections

Robeson capped his time at Rutgers by delivering “The New Idealism,” a commencement speech he’d written, on graduation day, June 10, 1919. With the recent end of World War I, he credited those who’d fought with forging “a new American spirit” that would lead to “a greater openness of mind … a greater desire to do the right things, and to serve social ends.”

Assuring the audience that the “less favored race” would work hard to make good on the soldiers’ sacrifices, he added: “But in order for us to successfully do all these things, it is necessary that you of the favored race catch a new vision and exemplify in your actions this new American spirit.”

The message, as expected, was favorably received. Robeson had already so impressed white society that, in the student newspaper, the Targum, the “class prophecy” predicted that, by 1940, he would be New Jersey’s governor as well as “the leader of the colored race in America.”

That prediction, it turned out, would be only partly correct.

When Robeson graduated Rutgers, the most influential African American was Booker T. Washington, a former slave who’d founded the Tuskegee Institute. An orator and writer as well, he believed that the keys to black progress were education and entrepreneurship, not challenging Jim Crow. But W.E.B. DuBois, who had helped found the NAACP, advocated the opposite: only changes in the law would give African Americans the means to realize their potential.

Per his father’s guidance, Robeson, in 1919, leaned more toward Washington than DuBois. But he also enrolled in Columbia Law School, thinking a legal career might best serve his race. “He did have a goal of overcoming obstacles and barriers and building a better America—more multiracial and egalitarian and allowing opportunity for everyone,” Glasker says.

He did not, however, have a scholarship. For income, he continued to play and coach professional sports as well as sing in homes and churches and at private functions. Handsome, charismatic, and intellectual, Robeson fit in perfectly with the Harlem Renaissance crowd, befriending the likes of poet Langston Hughes and painter Aaron Douglas.

In Harlem, he also met and soon married Eslanda “Essie” Goode, an intelligent woman of regal bearing who was working as a lab technician in New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Theirs would be a roller-coaster marriage, in part because of Robeson’s habitual infidelities. But his lack of organizational skills and her mastery of them were a good fit. “Essie was phenomenally important,” Ramsamy says. “In the end, it was more of a business relationship, but she played a very important role in the making of Paul Robeson.”

Upon earning his law degree, for instance, Robeson chose to work for a white law firm. But after a white secretary refused to take dictation from him, he quit. The timing was fortuitous. As a singer, Robeson had already drawn the attention of theatrical producers and, with Essie’s encouragement, performed in a couple of off-Broadway plays. They were terrible, but Paul was impressive enough to catch the eye of the Provincetown Players, including playwright Eugene O’Neill. Again, Essie pushed Robeson to join the group, and in 1924 he starred in two O’Neill plays, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones, which launched a long acting career, with Essie serving as manager.

While critics noted Robeson’s lack of stage training, they were enamored with what audiences found so appealing. “He had a commanding presence; he was very charismatic,” Glasker notes. Andrew Flack, a playwright who co-created I Go On Singing, a multimedia musical account of Robeson’s life, adds: “He was an Adonis, a David, and he had that voice.”

It was, like his father’s, a melodious bass-baritone, and since childhood, music had offered Robeson far more than just entertainment. In Here I Stand, he noted in particular, “the healing comfort to be found in the illimitable sorrow of the spirituals.”

With his recital partner, pianist-arranger Larry Brown, Robeson tested that idea on April 19, 1925, when they performed a concert of all Negro spirituals in a Greenwich Village theater. It was the first time a soloist had attempted such a feat, and thanks to Robeson’s delivery—prompting one critic to predict he’d be “the new American Caruso”—it had the mixed-race audience calling for 16 encores. So, too, a singing career was born, one that would produce lucrative concert tours and recordings.

Robeson's Career


During his remarkable acting career, Paul Robeson was well known for his theatrical performance in Othello, which ran on Broadway from 1943 to 1944. He was also famous for his film and stage appearances in Show Boat, in which he played Joe. Robeson and his wife, Eslanda, traveled to Egypt in 1936 to begin production of the film Jericho, stopping to visit Marseilles, France

courtesy of Howard University Libraries; by John D. Kisch/Getty Images

From the mid-1920s through the 1940s, Robeson was prolific, acting in dozens of film and stage productions and singing throughout the world. Among the highlights: his performances, for both stage and screen, in Show Boat, playing Joe, the stevedore who croons “Ol’ Man River,” and the title role in the 1943–44 Broadway production of Othello, which ran for 296 performances. He also took great pride in The Proud Valley, a film in which he played an American who finds work in a Welsh mining town struggling for survival.

Otherwise, Robeson wasn’t happy with the African-American stereotypes he was asked to play. “They never understood how to use him because they didn’t have the material for him,” Flack explains. “He was way ahead of his time socially.” In fact, he stopped acting in films in 1942 and thereafter would only play Othello on stage.

Singing was Robeson’s salvation. Especially in Europe, he was treated as more of an equal than he was in the States. Starting in 1925, the Robesons—who would later have a son, Paul Jr.—resided mostly in London, which at the time was a hotbed of political activity. “He runs into progressive playwrights in London,” Ramsamy says, “and a number of people involved in the anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa. He meets Jomo Kenyatta, the future president of Kenya. He meets Indian radicals. So, the political Paul Robeson is developed and nurtured in London. And he attaches himself to the British working class.”

Wherever he went, Robeson befriended the less privileged. He also listened to and sang their folk songs, often in the native tongue, as he was an avid linguist who spoke several languages. Eventually, folk songs were added to his concert repertoire, the idea being that they were cut from the same cloth as Negro spirituals, each a testament to the strength and dignity of the oppressed.

In the 1930s and early ’40s, during the era of the New Deal, such a stance wasn’t yet considered radical. But some, including the FBI, which had begun to keep an eye on him, noticed that Robeson’s politics were moving away from those of Washington and toward the positions of DuBois, whom he now considered a friend. He helped found, for example, the Council on African Affairs and staunchly advocated for anti-lynching laws and the desegregation of professional baseball. He had also become deeply interested in the Soviet Union.

In 1934, invited by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, he and Essie took the first of many trips to the U.S.S.R., where they were enthusiastically welcomed and impressed by what they considered a complete lack of racism. “I have told many times how pleased I was to find a place where colored people walked secure and free as equals,” he wrote in Here I Stand.

Four years later, during the Spanish Civil War, he toured Spain to support the rebel troops, among them African Americans. It was a turning point for Robeson, who now saw the world divided into two camps—the fascism of tyrants like Francisco Franco and Adolph Hitler and those fighting fascism, the Soviet Union included.

After World War II, however, when Joseph Stalin’s crimes were becoming public knowledge and the Cold War was heating up, Robeson continued to support the Soviet Union. In 1949, while speaking at a peace conference in Paris, he said that America’s wealth had been built “on the backs of millions of blacks. And we shall not put up with any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong … We shall not make war on the Soviet Union.”

Although his speech was met with applause, an Associated Press account misquoting Robeson as comparing the United States to Nazi Germany turned many—including friends, colleagues, and the NAACP—against him and served as further evidence for the FBI of Robeson’s Communist leanings. A riot after one of his concerts in Peekskill, New York, followed, and he soon found it increasingly difficult to perform in the United States. Then, in 1950, his passport was revoked when the State Department stated that Robeson’s overseas travel would be “contrary to the best interests of the United States,” the government’s excuse for monitoring left-wing political dissent. Robeson could no longer earn a living abroad.

Robeson's Activism


Paul Robeson was very active in promoting social justice. He attended an anti-lynching rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1946. After the United States government restored his revoked passport in 1958, he appeared at a nuclear disarmament rally in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1959. Robeson spoke in New York City’s Union Square in 1954.

George Skadding/Getty Images; Express/Getty Images; Hyman Rothman/Getty Images

Still, Robeson dug in. He refused to sign an affidavit stating he would not give speeches abroad, arguing that it was unconstitutional to tie one’s political affiliation to the right to travel. He had, in fact, never formally declared himself a Communist. But he was impatient with the snail’s pace of progress regarding civil rights.

Appearing before the Committee on House Un-American Activities in 1956, he was asked why he didn’t simply move to Russia. Robeson shot back, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”

To Glasker, this change in tone makes sense. “The Robeson we see at Rutgers and in the early 1920s is optimistic that change is going to come,” he explains. “And then it’s 20, 30 years later, and still the change has not come. So, you ask yourself, ‘How long are we supposed to patiently wait?’ It reminds me of the Langston Hughes poem: What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or does it explode? The answer is, eventually, it explodes.”

In 1958, the Supreme Court concurred with Robeson’s stance on traveling abroad, and he was able to renew his passport. He soon revived his singing career and, in 1959, played Othello one last time, to critical acclaim in London. Here I Stand—part autobiography, part political polemic—had also been recently published. But Robeson, his reputation in the United States in tatters and his health beginning to decline, had grown weary of the public spotlight.

One big question is why he never renounced Stalin or changed his mind about the Soviet Union, at least publicly. For decades, the authors of books and articles have wrestled with this quandary, many concluding that he was blinded by idealism or chose what he considered the lesser of evils, or both.

“I really believe it was his idealism,” says Flack. “You have to remember that we didn’t know everything we [came to] know about the Soviet Union. I think that’s incredibly important to remember.”

But Martin Duberman, author of Paul Robeson (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), what many consider the definitive biography of the Rutgers graduate, isn’t so sure. He writes that, even before Stalin died, and news of purges and killings were being leaked, Robeson still saw the world as being fascist or anti-fascist. “He continued to believe that the best chance for reaching his primary goal—improving the condition of oppressed peoples—lay with the egalitarian impulses originally unleashed by the Russian Revolution.”

By the mid-1950s, Stalin’s version of that revolution had been denounced even by Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, who gave a secret speech, later repeated in Western media, recounting his predecessor’s horrific crimes. Duberman writes of Robeson: “It would be the calculus of phony heroics to claim—as some of Robeson’s intimates do—that the Khrushchev report had no impact on him. Such an interpretation would reduce a greathearted man to a wooden warrior … He did, however, make the decision not to comment on his reactions to anyone, instead maintaining silence and outward equanimity.”

Jeff Sparrow, an Australian journalist and author of No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe Publications, 2017), a book covering Robeson’s life in the context of current events, offers a specific illustration of Robeson’s struggle. During a visit to Russia in 1949, he writes, Robeson met with a friend, the Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, who, unbeknownst to Robeson, was imprisoned as the result of a Stalinist purge. Although Feffer, who was being mistreated in prison, was made physically presentable for a meeting in Robeson’s bugged hotel room, he was able to quietly convey to Robeson his dire situation and ask that his friend appeal directly to Stalin for release. Robeson apparently did just that, but to no avail. Feffer was later shot and killed in prison.

“If Paul spoke publicly about what he’d seen in Moscow,” Sparrow continues, “if he revealed the truth about Feffer, if he admitted the existence of an anti-Semitic campaign sanctioned and fostered by the Soviet regime, he would, he thought, be emboldening domestic reactionaries, anti-communists, and racists, while discrediting the socialist vision inspiring those struggling for change.”

Whatever his motives, Robeson’s fidelity to Stalin and the Soviet Union effectively put an end to his career. He stopped performing after 1960 and declined requests for interviews. Essie, on whom he’d been so dependent, died of breast cancer in 1965, and Robeson moved in with his sister, Marian, in Philadelphia. He was in poor health, physically and mentally.

Ironically, his time as a recluse coincided with great social changes in the United States, including the civil rights movement that he had helped pioneer.  It also saw the rise, and political activism, of African-American artists like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, who credited Robeson with paving the way for their careers. In the 1970s, magazine articles in Sports Illustrated and Ebony helped to somewhat restore his reputation by spotlighting his considerable achievements. And Rutgers, as well as other educational institutions across the United States, began a tradition of naming facilities and programs after him.

Robeson died on January 23, 1976, at the age of 77. His funeral, which took place in Harlem, was attended by thousands of friends, colleagues, and admirers. Since then, his legacy has been reexamined and put into historical context.

“He’s an exceptional figure because he’s proof of this idea of trying to use one’s talents and genius to create a space for others and to create a freedom trail for others,” Tillet says. “He’s also proof that that isn’t enough, because the structural forces that were working against him continued to shape and limit how far he could go. He’s a compelling American figure, but as an activist? Extraordinary.” •