Paul Leroy Robeson was an All-American football player who became a world-famous singer and actor. He spent his entire life fighting for the rights of the working class and against ignorance and prejudice.
Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of five children of Reverend William Drew Robeson, a Presbyterian minister and escaped slave, and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, a schoolteacher. He grew up in Westfield, NJ at a time when blacks were discouraged from attending high school. In spite of this, he and three siblings were graduated from Sommerville High School. Robeson was prominent in the glee club and oratory club, served as sports editor for the school’s monthly newspaper, and played halfback on the football team.
Excellence in Academics and Sports
What would you do if you were offered a four-year scholarship in 1915 to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey and knew that you would be the only black student in the entire school? Paul Robeson accepted that scholarship and was graduated as valedictorian of his class of 1919. He was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society and Rutgers' Cap And Skull Honor Society. Rutgers also awarded Robeson an honorary Master of Arts degree in 1932 and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on his 75th birthday in 1973.
As an undergraduate, he was the first black football player at Rutgers, and arguably the best football player in the United States at that time. Twice he was named to the All American Football Team in spite of racism from some of his teammates. He won 12 varsity letters in baseball, football, basketball, and track and field (freshmen could not compete on varsity teams). He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995, nineteen years after his death.
His first job was as a professional football player, but it didn't pay very much, so he went to Columbia Law School, where he received his degree in 1923. While there, he met his wife Eslanda Cordoza Goode. After graduation, he worked for a law firm but quit when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. The only thing he thought that he had left was his voice, so he decided to become a singer and actor. Soon he was recognized as perhaps the most famous baritone in the world.
He made his concert debut in 1925 and performed on Broadway and in London in shows such as Othello and Show Boat. He was featured in 13 films from the 1920s to the early 1940s, including Show Boat and Porgy and Bess. He performed concerts around the world, singing in 25 languages.
Champion of the Downtrodden
He was a ground breaker who overcame prejudice by being better than his antagonists at everything he did. He stated, "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice."
He risked his life by going to Spain with many other honorable Americans during the Spanish civil war, and speaking out for freedom from fascism. However, the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, prevailed and oppressed the citizens of that country for the next 36 years, from 1939 until Franco's death in 1975. Robeson went to Africa and India to speak against colonialism, to London to fight for labor unions, and to the Soviet Union to fight against fascism.
In the United States, this incredible giant among men was denied hotel rooms and restaurant seating. In London, he could go to any restaurant or hotel and was the first actor ever to be invited for lunch to the House of Commons. In 1939, World War II caused Robeson to return to the United States. He supported the American war effort and became a popular radio entertainer.
Battle Against Racial Discrimination
In 1949, he visited Moscow where Jewish friends told him that Russia was not a free and liberal society and that it was full of prejudice. Stalin was paranoid against everyone and specifically persecuted the Jews in Russia. Robeson ended a Moscow concert by singing in Yiddish the Song of Resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto. Some people in the audience jeered when he sang this song. Listen to this incredible performance of a black man singing in Yiddish against the oppression of the Jews in Moscow during the cold war in 1949. His Yiddish is clearer than that of most secular American Jews.
By the late 1940's, Joseph McCarthy, a paranoid senator from Wisconsin, questioned the loyalties of some of the finest and most moral men in America. Robeson was called a communist and a major threat to America, even though he had never been a member of the communist party and had no proven communist affiliations whatever, and he supported this country's war against Hitler and gave many concerts for Allied forces during World War II.
Robeson was called a communist because in the 1920s and 1930s he performed many times in the Soviet Union and sent his son to a boarding school there. In 1949, the U.S. media reported that at a Paris peace conference, he said that black people would not fight in any war against the Soviet Union, which did not have racism. Nobody has ever been able to find concrete evidence that he said that, but it resulted in riots causing the cancellation of more than 80 of his concerts in the U.S. and his records were no longer available at stores.
In 1950, Robeson's passport was revoked which prevented him from earning a living by giving concerts in other countries. Riots prevented him (and Pete Seeger) from giving concerts in this country. It shows how gullible many U.S. citizens were to believe the unsupported lies that Joseph McCarthy gave to the media. It was not until 1958 that the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen’s right to travel could not be taken away without due process, and Robeson’s passport was returned. At that time, he gave his first New York concert in a decade at a sold-out Carnegie Hall. Robeson strongly supported American labor unions; listen to the incredible performance of "Joe Hill" that he sang in Carnegie Hall.
McCarthy got away with many of his lies and ruined the careers of many honorable men until June 1954 when the United States Congress finally censured him. McCarthy had damaged the careers of other brilliant, moral and loyal Americans including: Arthur Miller, playwright; Pete Seeger, folk singer; Lillian Hellman, playwright and screenwriter; Dashiell Hammett, playwright; Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo and other screenwriters; Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor; Charlie Chaplin, actor, director and producer; Langston Hughes, writer; William L. Shirer and Howard K. Smith, journalists; Richard Attenborough, director and producer; Artie Shaw, jazz musician, Lena Horne, singer and actress; and many others.
After His Passport was Returned
In 1958, he was welcomed all through Europe and Australia in an incredibly successful three-year tour. However, his career was destroyed by a still-unsolved series of events in 1961. In the spring of 1961, Robeson arranged a trip to visit Havana to meet with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Shortly before this trip, Robeson attempted suicide by slashing his wrists after a surprise party at his Moscow hotel. This was incredibly strange behavior for a man who was strong enough to stand up to the public scorn heaped on him by people like Senator McCarthy and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Robeson's son, Paul Robeson, Jr., believes that his father was drugged at the party hosted by anti-Soviet dissidents and funded by the CIA, because of his impending visit to Fidel Castro. Three weeks after this Moscow party and Robeson's attempted suicide, the United States supported a failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. At the time the CIA was running a research project called MKUltra, designed to change brain function by various methods including surreptitious administration of drugs.
At that time, Robeson was a major critic of United States's racial inequality and dominance of other countries throughout the world. He used his ability to speak more than twenty-five languages to influence and communicate with world leaders such as Nehru, Joao Cainito and Castro. He had announced that he would help the emerging civil rights movement.
His son says that his father was not depressed on the day of the fateful party. The extensive film footage taken by a documentary crew who followed Robeson around during this Moscow visit show no change in behavior and no evidence of depression.
Electric Shock Treatment
Robeson and his wife had a short stay in a Soviet sanatorium and then left for London where he was admitted to Priory Hospital. Psychiatrists there prescribed a host of mind-altering drugs and an outrageously excessive 54 electric shock treatments (ECT) during the two years he was at the hospital. He spent the rest of his life living in relative seclusion with his sister in Philadelphia and died at age 77.
Other Celebrities Who Have Had ECT
Many celebrities have been treated with electroshock therapy that can damage the brain and destroy memory:
* writers Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself after undergoing ECT treatment at the Mayo Clinic, and Ken Kesey, who wrote about his ECT in his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
* poets Silvia Plath (who also committed suicide) and Robert Lowell
* rock star Lou Reed
* film stars Frances Farmer, Gene Tierney, Vivien Leigh, and Michael Moriarty
* pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Oscar Levant
* talk show host Dick Cavett
* singer Tammy Wynette
* fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
How is ECT Done?
The patient is usually given six to twelve treatments. First he is given an intravenous anesthetic followed by a muscle relaxant to prevent him from contracting his muscles so violently that he could break his bones. A rubber mouthpiece is placed in his mouth to protect his tongue, and an oxygen mask is placed over his mouth. The doctor holds active electrodes on just one side of the patient's head, and sends an electric current through his brain to cause a seizure that usually lasts for half a minute. The patient wakes up about half an hour later, usually is confused and does not know what has happened. ECT commonly causes transient loss of memory, headaches, nausea, confusion and muscle soreness.
At the time Robeson was given electro-shock therapy, patients often did not receive anesthetics or muscle relaxants, the amount of electricity was greater, they received electric jolts on both sides of the head instead of just one, and the jolts of electricity were prolonged, instead of the short jolts used today.
Nobody knows how ECT may help an emotionally disturbed patient. ECT causes seizures and seizures sometimes help treat emotional disease. No data is available to support a common theory that electric shocks damage the brain to cause loss of memory of past events that caused the emotional problems in the first place.
Paul Robeson was one of the bravest men who ever lived. He stood up to tyrants all over the world in support of those who were downtrodden, burdened by prejudice, and looking for hope in seemingly hopeless situations. At age 63 this brilliant and apparently stable man became increasingly depressed. Nobody knows the cause. It could have been:
* as his son thought, that he was given hallucinogenic drugs by some entity that wanted to destroy him, or
* the electroshock treatment damaged his brain, or
* he developed Alzheimer's disease or some other dementia, or
* his brain was damaged by an infection that he picked up many years before as an incredibly attractive, brilliant, athletic and famous man.
April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976