Paul Robeson — University & Harlem

A young Robeson. Image: youtube

In 1915 Paul Robeson played Othello at Somerville High, where his wonderful voice was noted. The seventeen year old Paul, applied and took a statewide written exam for a four year scholarship to Rutgers University. Paul’s father would have preferred the all black Lincoln University where he had himself studied, but it would have been out of the minister’s financial ability, and the chance of a scholarship to Rutgers was very appealing financially. Anyway, Paul didn’t want to go to Lincoln and had his heart set on a much larger university, with Rutgers fitting the bill well.

Paul Robeson was determined.

“ I don’t want to have things handed to me, I don’t want it made easy,” Paul made clear at the time.

And easy they were not.

All the other students had already worked a four year course at school to prepare them for the exam. Paul had not, so had to take an exam that covered that four year course of work, and he won the competition.

Paul knew it was to be hard going to a non-segregated university, having, as an African-American, already suffered a certain amount of racial abuse, but his father had taught him an intricate “…strategy for survival.”

And as Martin Bauml Duberman has written, his father:

“ …had taught him to reject the automatic assumption that all whites are malignant, to react to individuals, not to a hostile white mass. At the same time, Reverend Robeson knew the extent of white hostility — he had, after all, been born a slave — and he counseled his son to adopt a gracious amenable exterior while awaiting the measure of an individual white person’s trustworthiness. But William Drew was no Uncle Tom; Paul was constantly reminded of his ‘obligations to the race,’ constantly reminded of its plight. Taught to be firm in his dedication to freeing his people, Paul was also taught to avoid gratuitous grandstanding. His job was to protest stay alive; outright rebellion against a slave system was as suicidal as subservient capitulation to it.”

When Paul Robeson entered Rutgers University the school was 149 years old and still private, with fewer than 500 students. It did not admit African-American students until the Civil War, with only two on the books from that period until Robeson walked through their doors, although some African-American s may have attended unofficially. The year after Robeson entered Rutgers another African-American, Robert Davenport, enrolled, with the two students known as “Davvy and “ Robey” , with the two becoming great friends.

And as Jeff Sparrow has written:

“ At Rudgers, the Reverend Robeson watched his son accumulate academic and other trophies, triumphs that were never within William’s own reach. Paul won fourteen varsity letters, he headed the debating team; joined Phi Beta Kappa, an honour accorded to those deemed the best representatives of the college ideals.”

In 1918 Paul’s father became seriously ill, and although Paul offered to come home instead of competing in an oratorical prize, his father, as recorded in Jeff’s book, commanded:

“ I don’t care what happens to me. I want you to go and give your speech, and I want you to win.”

Paul’s father died in May, and three days later Paul took the competition, going off script at one point to politely inform the mainly white audience about the “…inadequate educational opportunities offered blacks — and emphasized, by way of contrast, the distinction with which they continued to fight in the countries wars.” He won the competition.

In his 1964 memoir, , the jazz pianist, Willie The Lion Smith, writes:

“ During the years before World War I, colored folks moved uptown. Harlem itself did not become heavily populated until during the war when a great many Negroes from the south came up to work in the plants. But the section called San Juan Hill, or The Jungle, located west of of Broadway from Fifty-ninth up to Sixty-fourth, was growing steadily. West Fifty-third Street started to become the meeting place of entertainers and musicians.”

Willie The Lion Smith saw it all.

What Willie witnessed in those years of the early 20th century was six million African-Americans moving from the Southern States to the industrial North — and to a lesser extent the Mid-West and West. In 1900 approximately 90% of African-Americans lived in the Southern States: by 1970 it was down to half that figure.

The twenty-year-old Paul Robeson, whose own father had fled Southern slavery in the 19th century, was one of those who headed north: in his case only slightly further north, to the stomping ground of Willie The Lion Smith, Harlem.

Martin Bauml Duberman again:

“ No promised land awaited the new migrants to the North, yet amid the endemic squalor and discrimination they did manage to make some improvements in their daily lot: decreased death, illiteracy, and infant-mortality rates, a rise in school enrollment and political participation (blacks could vote in the North). Fierce white resistance to residential integration — including bombings and beatings — forced blacks into ghettos, where development of community institutions like churches and fraternal orders provided some sense of refuge, a potential political base, and a focus for cultural cohesion.”

When Robeson arrived in Harlem in 1919 he was already well known from Rutgers as a football star and basket-ball player, a hugely talented singer, and, as his father had asked him to be: an outspoken champion of his race. Paul was soon considered a ‘Harlem Darling’ and an ambitious ‘New Negro.’

And it wasn’t long before Robeson was spotted by an up and coming playwright, as Ann Douglas writes in her book,

“ Serious white dramatists showcased black talent…[such as] Eugene O’Neill, who urged his black peers to ‘… be yourselves! Don’t reach out for our stuff which call good!’ “

O’Neill pioneered drama about African-Americans, and used African-American actors too “… not white ones in blackface…” which was, to say the least, quite revolutionary. O’Neill’s was produced in 1919 with an all black cast, and five years later, O’Neill cast Paul Robeson as Jim Harris in

But we get slightly ahead of ourselves.

Paul Robeson’s final year in college had, in the words of Australian writer Jeff Sparrow:

“ …been marked by tremendous industrial upheavals, police repression, and racial conflict. Throughout the so called Red Summer of 1919, whites sought to intimidate black soldiers returning from France to accept pre-war conditions through lynchings and other forms of violence, resulting in hundreds of African-American deaths across the nation. There was nothing out of the ordinary in that. What was new was that African-Americans were fighting back — sometimes even taking up arms against their assailants.”

When Robeson arrived in Harlem that summer of 1919, it was filled with demobilised officers and men, with khaki everywhere, and African-American students from all over the country attending Columbia University’s summer school. And not withstanding the violence and tension the place was jumping with jazz pianists, such The Lion, back from the war setting up shop in speakeasies, and more grandly at the Leroy Wilkin’s Club on 135th Street.

Willie and Robeson were both part of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, which, apart from music and theatre, brought to the fore such writers as Rudolph Fisher — a friend of Robeson’s at the time — who became a major literary figure with his two novels, and Fisher was also studying medicine at Columbia, later becoming a much respected psychiatrist.

Fisher and Robeson would hang around together with another friend, the young musician, Jimmy Lightfoot, with whom Robeson shared an apartment on 135th Street.

Robeson was not slow at coming forward either where young women were concerned, often seen out walking with an attractive female on his arm: most often Francis Quiett, who had come to New York in 1918, with Fisher’s ‘steady date’ May Chinn, who became the first African-American female Bellevue graduate, and the first black woman intern at Harlem Hospital.

May was also a fine singer and pianist. Duberman again:

“ The four spent a lot of time together, and often May would play the piano while Paul sang. As Frankie [Francis Quiett] recalled sixty-five years later, he ‘had a beautiful, wondrous voice…’ ”

It was after one of these soirées at May’s apartment that Robeson decided to take his singing more seriously, rehearsing as often as he could with May playing the piano. It wasn’t long before the two were asked to give small recitals in schools and churches.

And when Paul Robeson wasn’t singing he was studying law.


Martin Bauml Duberman — (The Bodley Head, London, 1989); Jeff Sparrow — (Scribe Publications, 2017); Willie The Lion Smith — (The Jazz Book Club, by arrangement with MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1966)

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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