The son of a father who had escaped enslavement, Robeson was an academic and athletic wunderkind – earning a scholarship to Rutgers University where he was valedictorian and All-American football star, despite his teammates breaking his nose and dislocating his shoulder.
He went on to Columbia University to study Law whilst acting and playing professional football. He passed the New York bar but resigned from his law firm after a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.
Encouraged by his wife Essie, herself a formidable high-achiever and activist, he became famous after taking roles in Eugene O’Neill performances, and became known for the musical ‘Showboat’ and the song “Ol’ Man River”, specially written for his utterly distinctive bass voice. He went on to become the first Black actor to play Othello on Broadway.
In 1925, the couple moved to London, from where they travelled to the USSR and the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. As well as supporting the Spanish antifascist cause, Robeson donated the proceeds of one his films to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. After performing one night, he was captivated by the sound of blacklisted Rhondda miners singing protest songs as they marched through London. Robeson immediately joined them, performing at the march’s destination and paying for their journey home. It was the beginning of a deep mutual affinity between Robeson and Wales’ mining communities, one that helped him re-orient after becoming disenchanted with the English establishment.
“It’s from the miners in Wales,” Robeson once explained, “[that] I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.”
After returning to America at the outbreak of World War II, he was lauded as an “artistic and social genius” and campaigned against the evils of lynching and segregation, and for labour rights.
He challenged President Truman to support anti-lynching legislation and openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army for a country that tolerated racism. But his openly left-wing sympathies and Soviet sojourns meant he was hauled before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee where he was asked why he didn’t move to the USSR. He replied:
“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.”
He was blacklisted and had his passport illegally removed after he and his wife refused to deny they were Communists.
Though barred from work or escape, he was not forgotten by the communities of Wales, who in 1957 arranged for him to perform for 5,000 people at the miner’s eisteddfod in Porthcawl via a telephone line from New York. At the end, the entire audience serenaded him back with Welsh traditional “We’ll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside”.
He was defiant in the face of his unjust treatment but it ultimately took its toll. After he was allowed to return to work he suffered from depression and tried to kill himself in 1961, subsequently undergoing ECT treatment. He retired from public life in 1963 and died a recluse in Philadelphia aged 77. He was finally inducted into the Rutgers College Football Hall of Fame 19 years after his death.