Paul Leroy Robeson, the youngest of five children, was born in Princeton, New Jersey on 9 April, 1898. The America of his youth held little opportunity for young blacks. But Robeson’s strong will was shaped by his father, an escaped slave and a stern taskmaster. Young Robeson took from his father a passion for learning, a drive for perfection and an uncompromising integrity.
In his Somerville New Jersey High School, Robeson was an outstanding student. But he learned early that while his great talents could win him respect and applause, they did not bring full acceptance. This was a world where the boundaries to black success and achievement were rigidly drawn. One of his early teachers was moved to comment about his famous student:
“He is the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince. Still, I can’t forget that he is a Negro.”
“There must have been moments when I felt the sorrows of a motherless child, but what I most remember from my youngest days was an abiding sense of comfort and security.”
“When I was out on a football field, or in a classroom, I was not there just on my own. I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football, and wanted to go to college ... I had to show I could take whatever was handed out.”
An outstanding student and athlete, Robeson won a state scholarship to Rutgers College, New Jersey, in 1915, despite his bigoted high school principal’s attempt to interfere with the qualifying examination. Robeson later defined this experience as a decisive point in his life. He was convinced at this early age that even if he were denied equality he would never be inferior.
Rutgers was a small, distinguished college enrolling many students from Southern aristocratic families. He was only the third African-American ever admitted. Excluded from the school dormitory, he lived with a family in the black section of New Brunswick.
“Success in life was not to be measured in terms of money and personal achievement, but rather the goal must be the richest and highest development of one’s own potential.”
Paul Robeson entered Columbia Law School in New York City in 1920, supporting himself by working in the Post Office, singing, coaching basketball teams, playing professional football, and acting. While studying Law he made his first stage appearance in Simon the Cyrenian. He also performed in Taboo in New York and made his first Atlantic crossing to tour the play in England (retitled here as Voodoo). Playing a slave, Robeson dreamt of his former life in Africa:
“As I lapsed into my dream, I was meant to sing ‘Go Down Moses’. During the opening performance, I was startled to hear Mrs Pat [Patrick Campbell, his co-star] whispering offstage, for all the theatre to hear, ‘Another song. Sing another song!’ So I woke up and sang another spiritual. In all my supposedly heavy dramatic scenes, Mrs Pat would nudge me, and off I’d go - singing! ... the audience seemed to love it!”
And in London, his future singing career was further developed by meeting Lawrence Brown, a fine musician, who would become his lifelong accompanist and arranger.
In August 1921, Robeson married Eslanda Cardozo Goode.
After graduation from Columbia University with a degree in chemistry, Eslanda worked at Presbyterian Hospital as the first African-American analytical chemist in pathology. A few years later, she became her husband’s full-time manager and agent.
Robeson obtained his Law degree in 1923, but this career was short. Employed by a white law firm, he was confined to researching briefs. It was impossible for a black person to represent clients in court. And when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him because of the colour of his skin, he decided to quit.
“In the law I could never reach the peak; I could never be a Supreme Court Judge. On the stage there was only the sky to hold me back.”