Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson posing for his sculpture by Fredda Brilliant, 1939
Herbert Marshall, Fredda Brilliant, and Paul Robeson, 1938

Born in 1898, Paul Leroy Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and played football for Rutgers University, where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in four years and was valedictorian. Discouraged by racial strife while attending Columbia University Law School, he turned to public speaking and began his career as a talented bass singer and actor. His fame grew at home and abroad as he spoke fifteen languages and performed benefits throughout the world for causes of social justice. His admirers included Eleanor Roosevelt, W. E. B. Du Bois, Joe Louis, Pablo Neruda, Lena Horne, and Harry Truman.

Robeson and his wife Eslanda became close friends with English stage, screen, and radio actor Herbert Marshall and his wife Fredda Brilliant, an actress and artist who sculpted a bust of Robeson. Marshall and Brilliant wrote a treatment which was developed into The Proud Valley, starring Robeson as David Goliath.

Robeson became politically involved in response to the Spanish Civil War, fascism, and social injustice. Advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with Communism, and criticism of the United States led him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was also active in the Council on African Affairs, which was placed on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson's passport was revoked in 1950 and not reinstated for eight years. Unable to revive his career, he became depressed and underwent a number of shock treatments at a hospital in London. When he finally returned to the United States in 1963, Robeson retired to Philadelphia, where he lived in seclusion until his death in 1976.

The Herbert Marshall collection of Paul Robeson, 1934-1974, documents Robeson's career with play scripts and screenplays in which Robeson played leading roles, including the musical score for Show Boat. The collection also features photographs, news clippings, correspondence, manuscripts, a playbill, and a publicity poster from The Proud Valley. Robeson's personal library of seventy-three volumes includes an annotated copy of Othello.


Robeson, Paul. 2001. The undiscovered Paul Robeson: an artist's journey, 1898-1939. New York: Wiley.

Other works about Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson on PBS American Masters

The Many Faces of Paul Robeson at the National Archives