Paul Robeson

The son of a former slave, actor and bass-baritone Paul Robeson, b. Princeton, N.J., Apr. 9, 1898, d. Jan. 23, 1976, was one of the most distinguished Americans of the 20th century. After graduating with Phi Beta Kappa honors from Rutgers University, where he twice received All-American football awards, he attended Columbia Law School and practiced law briefly before turning to the theater.

Robeson's performances in Eugene O'Neill's plays during the early 1920s established him as a brilliant actor, and for two decades he was hailed as one of the greatest bass-baritones in the world. Robeson was particularly well known for his powerful rendition of "Ole Man River" in Jerome Kern's Show Boat (play, 1927; film, 1936). In the course of his many travels abroad, he learned numerous foreign languages and was greatly lionized. He played the title role in the 1943 Broadway production of Othello, which ran a record 296 performances. His acting in that play earned him, in 1944, the Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for best diction in the American theater and the Donaldson Award for best actor.

Robeson championed the cause of the oppressed throughout his life, insisting that as an artist he had no choice but to do so. A trip to the Soviet Union early in his career had made him a lifelong friend of the USSR, which in 1952 awarded him the Stalin Peace Prize. Following World War II, when he took an uncompromising stand against segregation and lynching in the United States and advocated friendship with the Soviet Union, a long, intense campaign was mounted against him. Thereafter he was unable to earn a living as an artist in the United States and was also denied a passport. Finally in 1958 he was allowed to leave the country for Great Britain. He returned in 1963 in ill health and spent the last 13 years of his life in self-imposed seclusion. In 1998, Robeson was posthumously honored with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.