The Great Paul Robeson

I never met Paul Robeson, but not for lack of trying.

I knew he lived on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia and I often thought of him in the 1970s when drove down the street. I was director of American Baptist News Service at the time and I was eager to interview him. It didn’t bother me that he was probably Presbyterian. I was sure I could write around that for a Baptist audience.

Robeson is only dimly remembered by the current generation, but I thought he was one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. In the fifties my mother listened to Robeson’s flawless bass-baritone voice on a scratchy 78. I particularly remember his rendition of “What Is America to Me,” a patriotic song adored by white Republicans.

I never knew if my mother knew Robeson was an African American Communist.

The son of a slave who became pastor of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton, N.J., Robeson was only the third African American to enroll in Rutgers University. He lettered in football and joined the debating team. He briefly practiced law after graduating from Columbia Law School.

Persons of a certain age will remember Robeson’s theatrical and cinematic career, especially the way he sang “Ol’ Man River” in the musical Show Boat in 1928. He starred as Brutus in the film The Emperor Jones, the first American film to star an African American actor – and the last to star a black actor for another two decades.

Robeson was an active anti-fascist in the 1930s and sang to raise money for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

He became an active campaigner for labor unions and civil rights, once telling President Truman that if he didn’t seek legislation to halt the lynching of blacks, “the Negroes will defend themselves.”

In 1956 Robeson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid identifying his political views. “Whether or not I am a Communist is irrelevant,” he said. “The question is whether American citizens, regardless of their political beliefs of sympathies, may enjoy their constitutional rights.”

Robeson was blacklisted and the U.S. government refused to allow him to travel outside the country, effectively ending his international concert career. His passport was restored in 1958 after a landmark Supreme Court decision and he embarked on a world tour that included singing American and Russian songs in Moscow.

Robeson retired in 1963 and moved to Philadelphia. I wrote to him several times to request an interview but, as I anticipated, did not hear from him. My friend Malcolm Poindexter, a Philadelphia journalist and host of KYW-TV’s “Black Edition” program, knew Robeson well. I asked Malcolm if he had any advice for contacting Robeson for an interview.

“He won’t do it,” Malcolm said. “He’s been treated horribly by the press. He won’t talk to you.”

“Even the Baptist press?” I asked.

“No reporters, not even me,” Malcolm said.

I eventually gave up on my ambition to meet Paul Robeson, but I often thought about him when I drove through his Chestnut Street neighborhood.

As it turned out, Malcolm Poindexter was probably protecting Robeson because he knew one of the great man’s deepest secrets.

Robeson had suffered from bi-polar disorder most of his life and by 1970 he was in no shape to communicate with the outside world.

Writing in Psychology Today in December 2019, Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes wrote:

During the years of his hospitalization, (his wife) Eslanda Robeson continued to tell friends and the public that he was suffering from exhaustion.  When the couple returned to New York in 1964 Robeson was still unwell. Doctors made a number of diagnoses of his physical and mental problems, but he continued frail, depressed and at times suicidal.  He never really recovered. After Eslanda died, he was cared for by his sister in Philadelphia.  When he was well enough he had visits from friends, but in many ways he was secluded from the world.

Hughes noted sadly that in the mid 20th century, mental and emotional illness carried such a stigma that people rarely talked about it.

“The pain and illness that Robeson suffered during his last years in no way take away from the brilliance of his life,” Hughes wrote.  “We are all richer for his presence on this earth.” 

She is right, of course. Paul Robeson was a giant of the arts and a singular leader in the movement for human, civil, and constitutional rights.

And those of us who never had a chance to meet him can be grateful that we were his honored contemporaries.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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