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Black History NJ: Paul Robeson

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. He was the youngest of five children. His mother came from a prominent Quaker family, and his father escaped slavery when he was a teenager; in addition, he became a minister later on in his life. When Robeson was six years old, however, his mother died in a house fire.

Early Life

Robeson attended Somerville High School, and in 1915, he became the third African American to attend Rutgers College. (As it was known at the time.) After some racially-fueled altercations with players on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team, Robeson was eventually allowed to play for them. Unfortunately he faced more harsh racism when he was benched during one regular season game, when a Southern football team would not take the field because the Scarlet Knights had allowed a person of color to play for them.

Robeson had an outstanding junior year at Rutgers, and The Crisis even commended him for his exceptional athletic, academic, and singing abilities. Robeson finished college in 1919 with a number of academic and athletic honors.

In the Fall of 1919, Robeson began classes at the New York University (NYU) School of Law, but, feeling uncomfortable at NYU, he moved to Harlem, New York and transferred to Columbia Law School the next semester. The NFL’s Akron Pros recruited Robeson to play for them while he continued his studies, and in the midst of his busy schedule, Robeson even appeared in several musical performances. After the completion of the 1922 season, he ended his professional football career and graduated from law school a few months later.

The Scales of Justice

Robeson only briefly practiced law in the early 1920s due to the amount of racism he faced in the field. He continued acting and performing throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, and early ‘40s, becoming a huge hit among New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. He performed in The Emperor Jones, Othello, Show Boat, and a number of other acts. During World War II, Collier’s magazine called Robeson America’s number-1 entertainer.

Paul RobesonBefore the 1940s, Paul Robeson had voiced his opinion on politics quite a few times, but it wasn’t until the late ‘40s that Robeson became even more outspoken about the racial tension in the country. This was not a particularly high point in Robeson’s otherwise spectacular career; but in the late 1950s, he was back in commission with successful comeback tours.

By the mid-1960s, Robeson’s health began to decline. He soon retired from performing and settled down in Philadelphia. On January 23, 1976, Robeson died due to complications of a stroke. He left behind him a magnificent legacy and countless fans.

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