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Robeson, Paul (1898–1976)

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ROBESON, PAUL (1898–1976). Actor, singer, civil rights activist. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Robeson gained a worldwide reputation as an actor, singer, scholar, and activist. The son of a runaway slave, he educated himself at Lincoln University and won a scholarship to Rutgers University. A tremendous athlete, he earned 12 letters in football, baseball, track, and basketball. He was named as an All American in both 1917 and 1918, and was honored as a Phi Beta Kappa for his academics in his junior year. Robeson received his law degree from Columbia in 1923, and financed it while playing professional football. While performing in a play at Columbia, he was spotted by noted playwright Eugene O’Neill, and made his professional stage debut in Taboo . Robeson followed his stage success with O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones . Other important stage roles included Othello, Porgy , and Showboat . Robeson became a world traveler and spoke several languages, including Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. His first film role was in Oscar Michueax ‘s Body and Soul , 1924. He was later brought to Hollywood from the European stage to play the title character in the film version of The Emperor Jones , 1933, a role that would bring him international stardom. Robeson’s other films include Sanders of the River , 1935; Showboat , 1936; and Tales of Manhattan , 1942. Well known for his powerful singing voice, Robeson also recorded over 300 records in his multi-faceted career. His political views and affiliations often surrounded him in controversy. He protested against lynching, picketed the White House, and refused to perform before segregated audiences. In 1951, during the McCarthy era, his passport was denied when he was called to testify and refused to deny that he was a member of the Communist Party. With limited work and career opportunities, Robeson’s annual income plummeted from $104,000.00 to $2,000. The decision was overturned eight years later by the Supreme Court and his passport was returned, but his career never recovered.

Filmography: Body and Soul , 1924; Emperor Jones , 1933; Sanders of the River , 1935; Song of Freedom , 1936; Show Boat , 1936; King Solomon’s Mines , 1937; Big Fella , 1937; Jericho , 1938; Tales of Manhattan , 1942.

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