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Robeson, Paul, (1898-1976) | Southern Illinois University Special Collections Research Center

Name: Robeson, Paul, (1898-1976)

Historical Note:

Born in 1898, Paul Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. At seventeen, he was given a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in four years and was his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School. Racial strife ended Robeson's career as a lawyer early.

Returning to his love of public speaking, Robeson began to find work as an actor, and discovered his incredible singing talent with songs such as his trademark "Ol' Man River,". While his fame grew in the United States, he became equally well-loved internationally. He spoke fifteen languages, and performed benefits throughout the world for causes of social justice. He was admired and befriended by both the general public and prominent personalities, including Eleanor Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Joe Louis, Pablo Neruda, Lena Horne, and Harry Truman.

During the 1940s, Robeson's black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 his passport was revoked. It was eight years before his passport was reinstated, and though he tried to revive his career, the years of hardship had taken their toll. He was admitted to a hospital in London, where he was administered continued shock treatments. When Robeson returned to the United States in 1963, he  retired to Philadelphia and lived in seclusion until his death in 1976.


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