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Paul Robeson Bust in York Art Gallery Collection

TW: Racism, murder and discrimination

As a younger man, Paul Robeson studied Law at Colombia University and was a star American Football player. Due to racism in the US, when he graduated he struggled to join a law practice and decided to move in to acting, becoming successful very quickly in the theatre, then on screen.

Robeson performed in Britain, touring around the country from 1922 and played Joe in Show Boat in 1928 singing Ol’ Man River which became a benchmark for all later performances. He bought a home in Hampstead, London and lived there for several years with his wife Eslanda. During his time in Britain, Jacob Epstein created this bust of him, now in the collection of York Art Gallery. Epstein challenged the way that Black people were usually depicted by adopting a naturalistic style for this portrait of Robeson. He worked to produce portraits of many other Black people and people of colour, including Robeson’s son Paul Robeson Jr. and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the 1930s he became more politically aware and began to look into his own heritage. He Studied Phonics and Swahili at the School of Oriental and African Studies while living in London and became associated with the anti-imperialist and socialist movement, travelling to the Soviet Union in 1934 where he said “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.”

He took an active stance during the Spanish Civil War, speaking against the rise of Fascism in Europe. He also amended lyrics and prose in Showboat to remove racist and stereotyped language which made Ol’ Man River into a battle cry.

In 1940 he returned to the USA and toured the country. While on a tour in the USA, he was refused accommodation in many hotels and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was the only major hotel that would – but under a different name and at a high price. He spent two hours every morning in the lobby to make sure any other Black person wanting a room was given one.

He put on plays to raise money for the war effort and met with many other civil rights organisations including the Jewish Anti-Fascist committee.

In 1948, four people were lynched in George, USA and because of his fame, Robeson was granted a meeting with President Truman and pushed for anti-lynching legislation, which was denied. Robeson continued to campaign for civil rights and was ostracised for this and his links to Trade Unionism. The US government refused him a passport so he could not spread anti-American rhetoric on his travels but he continued his activism during the McCarthyism era.

He returned to the issue of lynching in 1951 and presented to the United Nations an anti-lynching petition titled “We Charge Genocide”. The document said that the United States federal

government, by its failure to act against lynching in the United States, was “guilty of genocide” under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention.

Through the 50s and early 60s he travelled the world promoting civil rights and socialism until his health deteriorated in 1963 and he travelled back to America to retire. He did not return to the public eye and died in 1976.