Activist on the Global Stage: Paul Robeson 1923

His pathbreaking career was nearly crushed by McCarthy-era ostracism, but Paul Robeson’s voice, in song and speech, continues to be heard in support of Black freedom.

Man in suit and tie with patterns wall hanging in background

Actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson 1923 broke racial barriers and enthralled audiences even before he graduated from Columbia Law School. His long performing career, which included starring in Othello on Broadway and singing “Ol’ Man River” as Joe in the 1936 film Show Boat, brought him worldwide acclaim. But his support of the Soviet Union as a socialist and anti-racist society, and his activism for progressive causes—from Black civil rights to Spanish Republican fighters to postcolonial African nationalism—cost him dearly during the Cold War.

Paul Robeson LL.B. degree awarded, faculty minutes February 9, 1923
Paul Robeson's name appears in the faculty minutes from February 9, 1923, noting the award of an LL.B. degree.
Learn more about Paul Robeson’s life and achievements below.

Paul Robeson 1923 (1898-1976)

“I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace, and brotherhood.”



Paul Robeson is born on April 9 in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of five children. His father, William, pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, escaped slavery in North Carolina as a teenager and earned theology degrees from Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. His mother, Maria Louisa, a teacher, dies in a house fire when Paul is 5 years old. 



Educational and Athletic Success

Robeson wins a full scholarship to Rutgers University and is only the third Black student to enroll. He earns 15 varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track and is twice named a football All-American—despite experiencing physical hostility from players on other teams and his own. He sings in the college glee club, but he is not permitted to travel to performances at other schools.

Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, Robeson gives the graduation speech for the class of 1919. The future of Black people, he says, “lies chiefly in our own hands.” But he calls on white people—“you of the favored race”—to “catch a new vision . . . in which success and achievement are recognized, and those deserving receive the respect, honor, and dignity due them.”


Columbia Law School

Robeson moves to Harlem and enrolls at Columbia Law School during the deanship of Harlan Fiske Stone. His father, who died in 1918, had encouraged Robeson to become a minister. He works his way through law school by giving concerts, acting, and playing professional football; on weekends, he takes overnight trains to Ohio to play for the Akron Pros. In the fall of 1922, he takes a semester off to play for the Milwaukee Badgers in the nascent NFL.



Marries Eslanda Cardozo Goode TC 1920, a chemist working in the pathology lab at Presbyterian Hospital (now NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital). She encourages his singing and acting career and works as his manager. During their difficult but lasting marriage, the couple has a son, Paul Jr., and Eslanda earns degrees in anthropology and theology and writes several books.


A Truncated Law Career

After graduating from Columbia Law, Robeson works for Stotesbury and Miner, an estate law firm. He writes briefs, but a secretary refuses to take dictation from him, and the head of the firm tells Robeson he is unlikely ever to try a case in court because white clients will not work with a Black lawyer. Robeson resigns and pursues his stage career. “As an actor, I think I have less to buck against than as a lawyer,” he tells the New York Herald Tribune.  



Worldwide Acclaim

Begins his career as an actor and singer and finds international success, appearing on concert stages across Europe and the Soviet Union. He acts in plays by Eugene O’Neill including All God’s Chillun Got Wings (about a lawyer in an interracial marriage) and performs concert programs of spirituals. “These were not songs of defeat,” he says. Instead, he continues, they were the songs that helped Black people in their struggle.

Robeson’s activism grows—he supports the labor movement and ending colonial rule in Africa and India, and speaks out against rising fascism in Europe. He becomes friendly with anti-colonial activists Jomo Kenyatta and Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1934, he visits the Soviet Union and praises its commitment to racial equality. “In Soviet Russia, I breathe freely for the first time in my life,” he says.




Prelude to World War

Robeson sings “Ol’ Man River” in the film Show Boat, the song that becomes most associated with him. During the Spanish Civil War, he raises money for the Republican cause and performs for soldiers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Gen. Francisco Franco. “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice,” he says.


Breaking Barriers Again

In 1943, Robeson becomes the first Black actor to play Othello in a major production in America. It runs for 296 performances, the longest run of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. That same year, he joins a delegation to meet with baseball-team owners and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to press for inclusion of Black players on major league teams. “Because baseball is a national game, it is up to baseball to see that discrimination does not become the American pattern,” he says. It was not until 1947 that the first Black player, Jackie Robinson, took the field for a major league team. 



Honored by the NAACP

The NAACP awards Robeson its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, for his achievements in theater and music, and “for his active concern for the rights of the common man of every race, color, religion and nationality.”


Postwar Frustration

After a surge of violence against Black people, including veterans returning from World War II, Robeson meets with President Harry S. Truman to press for a federal anti-lynching bill—but Truman rebuffs him. In the 1948 election, Robeson campaigns for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, whose platform includes desegregation and universal health insurance.


Cold War Controversy

At a peace conference in Paris, Robeson is reported by The Associated Press to have said that Black Americans would not fight a war against the Soviet Union, a nation more dedicated to racial equality than the United States. Though Robeson was likely misquoted (newspaper accounts vary), backlash in the U.S. leads to public condemnation. A concert in Peekskill, New York, ends in violence despite a massive police presence when veterans groups outside the venue, calling Robeson a Communist, attack audience members as they are leaving.




The State Department cancels Robeson’s passport for refusing to sign a declaration that he is not a Communist. He is blacklisted and surveilled by the FBI. His performing and recording career is destroyed. In 1952, Robeson is awarded the Stalin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union, which he receives from W.E.B. Du Bois at a ceremony in September 1953 at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. He does not change his position of support for the Soviet Union despite revelations of Joseph Stalin’s purges and postwar domination of Eastern Europe. When Stalin dies in 1952, Robeson eulogizes his “deep humanity” and “wise understanding.”


House Un-American Activities Committee

Summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robeson is asked if he is a member of the Communist Party. “Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?” he replies. “I am not being tried [before the committee] for whether I am a Communist. I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America.”


Freedom Restored

The Supreme Court rules that passports may not be revoked because of a citizen’s beliefs and associations. A sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in honor of Robeson’s 60th birthday marks the end of his ostracism. He returns to recording and touring internationally. He publishes his autobiography, Here I Stand, but few general-audience newspapers mention it.


Ill Health and Retirement

Eslanda Robeson dies of cancer. Due to a heart condition and depression, Paul Robeson largely retires from public life.


Late-Life Honors

A Carnegie Hall concert celebrates Robeson’s 75th birthday. Unable to attend because of his health, Robeson says in a message, “I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace, and brotherhood.” Rutgers University awards him an honorary doctorate—his fourth from a university.


A Quiet Death

Robeson lives his final years in Philadelphia, at the home of his sister. He dies on January 23, 1976.


Honored by Columbia Law School

Columbia Law School inaugurates the Paul Robeson Scholarship with a black-tie fundraising dinner in Low Library, hosted by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA); Roy M. Cohn ’47, former counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during congressional investigations of suspected Communists, calls the honor “an absolute outrage.” In 1995, BLSA inaugurates the annual Paul Robeson Conference and Gala.


Celebrating Robeson’s 100th Birthday

To mark the centennial of Robeson's birth and the 75th anniversary of his graduation from Columbia Law, BLSA holds a Paul Robeson Symposium. Among the guests is Constance Baker Motley ’46, the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary and the first woman to serve as chief judge for the Southern District of New York. The following year, Cornel West, then a professor of religion and African American studies at Harvard University, gives the first Paul Robeson Lecture. 



Columbia Law Centennial

Columbia Law School celebrates the centennial of Robeson’s graduation with an exhibit about Robeson and a talk, held in conjunction with the annual Alumni of Color reception, by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, in conversation with Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law, and introduced by Sheena Wright, CC ’90, LAW ’94.


Further Reading and Sources