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Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)

Paul Robeson is best known as a world famous athlete, singer, actor, and advocate for the human rights of people throughout the world. Over the course of his career Robeson combined all of these activities into a lifelong quest for racial justice. He used his deep baritone voice to communicate the problems and progress associated with black culture and community, and to assist the labor and social movements of his time. He sang for multiracial and multiethnic peace and justice in twenty-five languages throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa.

Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, to Reverend William Drew Robeson, the pastor of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson.  His mother was from a prominent local mixed-race family and his father was a former slave who escaped from a plantation before the Civil War. Robeson was the youngest of four children.

Robeson’s mother died when he was six and his father struggled to care for the two youngest children. By 1912 the family had moved to Somerville, New Jersey where the young Robeson already was a standout athlete and stage performer.  He also preached in his father’s church.

In 1915 Robeson became the third African American student to enroll at Rutgers University.  There he became an All-American Football player, received a Phi Beta Kappa key for his scholarship, and graduated as class valedictorian. Robeson entered the New York University Law School in 1919 and while there supported himself by serving as the assistant football coach at Lincoln University where he joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. 

Robeson left New York University Law School in 1920, moved to Harlem, and transferred to Columbia University Law School.  He graduated from that institution in 1923 while playing professional football for the Akron Pros coached by Fritz Pollard.  Robeson ended his professional football career in 1922.  After getting a J.D., he briefly practiced law but decided to focus his career on the stage and

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