Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Paul Robeson

1898-1976 / Actor, singer, activist

Perhaps the most famous African-American actor of the early 20th century, Paul Robeson rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance.

Robeson took a roundabout route to the stage. His father, a former slave who had gone on to earn a degree in theology from Lincoln University, instilled a keen social awareness in the younger Robeson.

After attending Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey (where he earned All-American honors on the football field and Phi Beta Kappa honors in the classroom), Paul graduated as the valedictorian of his class in 1919. From that springboard he entered Columbia University, where he earned a law degree in 1923.

Encouraged by his wife, Essie, Robeson began moonlighting as an actor in local YMCA productions. By day, meanwhile, he had begun working as a lawyer in the New York law office of Stotesbury and Miner. But the overt racism that Robeson encountered there—his white secretary, for one, was openly insubordinate—clinched his decision to take up acting full-time.

In 1921, Robeson joined the chorus of the landmark musical Shuffle Along. Three years later, he braved death threats to star in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings, which featured an interracial romance. Later that same year (1924), Robeson played the lead role of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in the London production of the play; he would also star in the 1933 film version.

Robeson distinguished himself and his profession by achieving spectacular success in stage and film roles that had previously been off limits to black actors. His legendary performances in Showboat, Othello, and the Oscar Micheaux film Body and Soul became benchmarks by which later generations of actors would measure themselves. As Robeson's acting career ushered him around the globe, he became a passionate and outspoken advocate of civil rights and social justice. Several bitter run-ins with racism led him to a flirtation with communism—and resulting banishment from the stage. After living in Great Britain from 1958 to 1963, Robeson returned to the States and lived out his life in obscurity and ill health.