Paul Robeson

On this date in 1898, Paul Robeson, the son of a former slave and preacher, was born in New Jersey. Robeson was awarded a 4-year scholarship to Rutgers, becoming that university's third black student. He was a 12-letter athlete, Phi Beta Kappa scholar, Cap & Skull Honor Society member and valedictorian of his 1919 graduating class. Robeson earned a law degree from Columbia in 1923, but encountered racist barriers, such as a white secretary refusing to take dictation from him. Robeson turned to theater, starring in Eugene O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings" (1924) and "Emperor Jones." Robeson changed the words to Jerome Kern's song, "Old Man River," when he starred in "Showboat." It became the mellifluous singer's signature song. He made 11 films and gave popular concert tours around the world, but faced constant "Jim Crow" racism even in Europe. The increasingly radical Robeson, questioning why American blacks should be loyal to a country that denied them equal rights, was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, and was denied a passport until 1958. He spent time in Russia and abroad before returning to the United States. According to Who's Who in Hell, edited by Warren Allen Smith, Robeson was a naturalist and nontheist. D. 1976.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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