Paul Robeson

Paul RobesonPaul Robeson was a strong advocate for the rights of organised labour and racial equality. As a world famous baritone, he visited Australia in October 1960 giving 12 performances in cities Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

He was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898 as the youngest of five children. His father was a runaway slave and his mother Quaker from an abolitionist family.

He won an academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915 where he achieved honours in a range of sports including baseball, basketball, track and made the All-American football team twice.

Robeson married Eslanda Cordoza Goode when he attended Columbia University where he studied law between 1919-1923. Eslanda was the first black woman to lead a pathology laboratory. He worked in a law firm until a secretary refused to take dictiation from him. From that point he used his extraordinary talent in theatre and music to promote African-American history and culture.

He took the lead in numerous Eugene O’Neill plays, and then earned international acclaim for his portrayal of Othello in 1944. This was the first time the role had been filled by an African American in over a century. During the 1930s and 1940s sales of records featuring Robeson's rich baritone soared. This coincided with a career in films such as "Old Man River", "Body and Soul", "Jericho".

  • Paul Robeson sings for workers at the Sydney Opera House 1960

Through this time and into the 1950s  Robeson continued to speak out passionately in support of human rights and the labour movement. This outspokenness brought into the spotlight of the House Un-American Activities. His eloquent response to interrogation speaks clearly to us today through a re-enactment in which he plays himself in the documentary "Big Paul". This was an extraordinary life.

See Paul Robeson's visit to Australia and Aboriginal activism 1960 by Ann Curthoys