In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Paul Robeson

  • Introduction

African American Studies Paul Robeson
Eric Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0098


Many intellectuals describe Paul Robeson as one of the nation’s greatest musicians, scholars, actors, athletes, and activists of the 20th century. Born on 9 April 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson was the youngest of five children born to William Drew Robeson, a runway enslaved African American who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, a historical black college located in Pennsylvania, and Maria Louisa Bustill, a biracial Quaker who was also from Pennsylvania and came from a family of abolitionists. Without question, Robeson’s fame as an athlete on the football field, on the theater stage, in the concert hall, in films, as an activist, and as a leader for social change and justice has been documented in a variety of ways. His being blacklisted and the seizure of his passport by the US government for his anti-colonialism stance and articulation for certain forms of socialism during the 1940s and 1950s has also received much attention from scholars. But most folks do not know about his humble beginnings. For instance, in 1910 the Robeson family moved to Somerville, New Jersey, a relatively large town located between Westfield and Princeton, New Jersey. This is where Paul’s father, Reverend William Drew Robeson, served as pastor of the St. Thomas AME Zion Church until his untimely death in 1918. As a youngster, Paul was a very bright student who attended a local all-Black elementary school, where he graduated at the head of the class. Upon his graduation, his father, although very proud of him, seemed to not show any great enthusiasm. Many years later Robeson recalled, “I guess . . . it was only what he expected of me,” and that he “was never satisfied with a school mark of 95 when 100 was possible.” This attitude, Robeson, continued, was not because his “Pop” wanted perfection. It was rather a sign of his belief in the concept of “personal integrity,” which included the idea of “maximum human fulfillment.” Thus, Robeson proclaimed that “success in life was not to be measured in terms of money and personal advancement, but rather the goal must be the richest and highest development of one’s own potential.” These words embodied and directed the rest of the life of Paul Robeson until his death in 1976, at the age of seventy-seven. More importantly, Robeson’s philosophical framework and political activism can be divided into four main areas: Religion; Anti-colonialism and Pan-Africanism; Music and Theater Performances; and Human Rights.


After obtaining his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University, Robeson went on to receive his JD degree from Columbia University, while playing in the National Football League (NFL). Although he worked at a prominent New York law firm for a while, his true passion was on the acting stage. However, before he fully entered this new profession, he met and married Eslanda Cordoza Goode in 1921. Later in her life, Eslanda became the first African American woman to head a pathology laboratory. Soon after, Robeson completely left the profession of law and began to use his artistic skills and talents in theater, films, and music to promote African and African American culture and history. More importantly, from a cultural standpoint, Robeson used his deep baritone voice to promote and educate his audience on the origin and nature of “Negro” spirituals, as well as using the money that was generated from these types of events to benefit various progressive labor and social movements in the United States. It was during these years that one could see his religious foundation and philosophy expressed in various ways. Robeson’s religious philosophical framework did not develop in a vacuum, nor did it begin at a specific moment in time. In order to understand his religious perspectives, however, one has to explore the impact and influence that Robeson’s father had on him. For example, Robeson’s father was the pastor of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, for twenty years before young Paul was born in 1898. The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) was not active in the African American community at the time, but as a result of its missionary efforts during the Reconstruction Era, this situation gradually changed. However, it was when the Robeson family moved to Somerville, and when Paul’s father subsequently became the pastor at the Saint Thomas African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, in 1910, that young Paul began to develop more concrete religious foundational principles, which would shape his views on social justice for the rest of his adult life. These foundational principles were particularly important to him after he was blacklisted and forbidden from traveling outside of the United States because of his anti-colonialism stance.

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