28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

Did you know Paul Robeson was a Rhodes Scholar, and played professional football while attending Law School at Columbia?

One of the most celebrated actors of any generation was the son of a runaway slave. Paul Leroy Robeson was born April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey.

A stand out in school from an early age, he was a natural athlete—playing football, basketball, baseball, and track. In high school he went on to gather 15 letters in the 4 sports. Robeson spoke more than 20 languages fluently. In college, he would become a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and graduate second in his class at Rutgers.

And though he’s the most celebrated athlete in Rutgers history, that same history tells us he was constantly mauled and pummeled during practice games with his own teammates. His teammates even went so far as to intentionally break his nose and dislocate his shoulder. It’s hard being the first black person to do anything. Harder still, is if you’re the best at that thing you’re the first at. Which he absolutely was. The 6’3” Robeson dusted himself off, and did it all over again, without a word of protest.

Later, he attended Columbia Law School, on a scholarship for football, and even managed to go pro while he was getting his law degree. The only reason he went to Columbia is because he didn’t feel comfortable at NYU’s law school. In any spare time he had, he taught football to earn money while at school.

Sadly, even a man like Robeson could not overcome the racism that existed in 1920s America, so after graduating with his law degree in 1923, Robeson took one of his many talents to the stage. He’d made his first appearance on stage the year prior in London.

His distinctive, deep and vibrant singing voice is one of the most impressive and memorable. With his rendition of “Ol Man River” becoming the benchmark for all other performers who followed. Other famous renditions include “Joe Hill” and “Shenandoah.”

Mr. Robeson had a long career in theater, including a record breaking run as Othello in the titular role, the first black man to play the role since Ira Aldridge. He played Joe in Show Boat, and Toussaint Louverture in another title role, after an ideological awakening, which would become one of his greatest legacies—a fierce resistance to the societal mores of the time.

Traveling back and forth from America and England in the 1920s and 30s, Robeson gained a wealth of knowledge and experienced a shock when he found the difference in treatment of blacks in Europe versus those in America. On his arrival in Moscow, Robeson noted: “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life .. I walk in full human dignity.” His arrival in Berlin kept him on his toes, however, as Nazi Germany was in its infancy when he performed several shows.

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In 1937, during the events leading up to the Spanish Civil War, Robeson turned his song “Ol Man River” into a battle cry for the freedom from the oppressive regimes of fascism, a stance his agent warned against fiercely. Which, in hindsight, wasn’t a terrible idea. However, it was the right stance to take, despite what was on the horizon for Mr. Robeson.

Paul Robeson joins the picket line outside the American Theater on Jan. 25, 1947. (Post-Dispatch)

Robeson’s political activism, including standing against a spat of horrific lynchings in front of President Truman, (Robeson had boldly rallied for Henry Wallace, at his own peril in the South) and supporting various organizations including the CPUSA (Communist Party USA), saw him brought up on charges of un-American activities by Joseph McCarthy during the House Un-American Activities Committee proceedings, effectively blacklisting him. A 1950 reviewed book even omitted Robeson’s name from its list of former Rutgers football players. J. Edgar Hoover even disseminated negative propaganda in Africa to further defame Mr. Robeson’s name, in the form of falsehoods in magazines and books. The government also took away his passport.

Still under traveling restrictions in 1956, Robeson pleaded the 5th Amendment during questioning, refusing to mention his political affiliations. Standing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, he said, “because my father was a slave and my people died to build [the United States and], I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!”

His passport and traveling privileges were reinstated and his ban in entertainment were lifted by 1959, but by now, his health started to fail. He would retire in 1967, and on January 23, 1976, he passed away after a stroke. He was 77.

During his funeral, pallbearers included Harry Belafonte and Fritz Pollard, the first African American to coach an NFL team and one of Robeson’s first friends when he went to Rutgers. A true example of black excellence may have passed, but none will ever compare, and thus his life will forever shine.

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.