Paul Robeson’s father often reminded his son that he must care for all people who were unfavourably treated…
Paul Leroy Robeson was born in Princeton on April 9th, 1898. His father, William Drew Robeson, was born a slave in 1845, as Robeson’s biographer, Martin Bauml Duberman writes:
William was “… the child of Benjamin and Sabra, on the Roberson[sic] plantation in Cross Roads Township, Martin County, North Carolina.”
In 1860, aged fifteen, William escaped the plantation, headed north and crossed into Pennsylvania, where he served as a labourer in the Union Army, often making the perilous journey back to the plantation to see his mother, something that could easily have cost him his life. At the end of the Civil War William sent himself to school, and then, earning the fees working as a farm labourer, entered Lincoln University where he studied theology, earning a degree in Sacred Theology in 1876.
“ While studying at Lincoln, William Drew met Maria Louisa Bustill, eight years his junior, a teacher at the Robert Vaux School. Her distinguished family traced its roots back to the African Bantu people (as William Drew did his to the Ibo of Nigeria), and in this country its members had intermarried with Delaware Indians and English Quakers. The many prominent descendants included Cyrus Bustill, who in 1787 helped to found the Free African Society, the first black self-help organization in America; Joseph Cassey Bustill, a prominent figure in the Underground Railroad; Sarah Mapps Douglass, a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Louisa Bustill’s own sister, Gertrude, wrote for several Philadelphia newspapers and married Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell, the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (as well as a considerable activist for racial justice). When Louisa Bustill married William Drew Robeson in 1878, the impressive legacy of Bustill achievements, past and current, became part of their son Paul’s heritage.”
And although Paul was proud of his mother’s family he seldom spoke about them, preferring to talk about his father’s ‘good North Carolina kin’ .
In the year of Paul’s birth in 1898 his father was fifty-three, and his mother forty-five. Paul was the youngest of seven children, and was his mother’s favourite.
Paul Robeson’s eldest brother William became a doctor in Washington DC, dying in 1925 aged forty-four. For Paul his dead brother became his ‘…principal source of learning how to study.’
In the early years of Robeson’s life the town of Princeton has been described as a “…strictly Jim Crow place, with black adults held to menial jobs and black youngsters relegated to the segregated Witherspoon Elementary School…” a school which only taught to eighth grade. If a better education was sought by African American parents, as was the case with Paul’s, it had to be sought elsewhere. As Robeson wrote, African Americans…” lived a much more communal life “ in Princeton “ than the white people, “ a communality expressed and preserved” by the church.
“ Within that church, [Paul’s father] was an admired figure. He had been pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton for nearly twenty years when his son Paul was born. Of the three black churches in Princeton at the turn of the century, Witherspoon was the largest, the possessor of an auditorium, a parish house, and several additional properties, together valued at more than thirty thousand dollars. As pastor of Witherspoon, Reverend Robeson would later be recalled as having initially ‘made many improvements in the church methods and church prosperity.’ He would also be recalled, by blacks, as ‘ever the defender of justice — standing firmly for the rights of our race.’ A contemporary commented that ‘you could move the Rock of Gibraltar’ more easily — William Drew Robeson was made of ‘flintstone, unwilling to compromise on moral principles, even if it meant economic harm.’ ”
But then, after twenty years of service, the Reverend Robeson was forced out of his position. Many reasons have been given, but it sounds like a bad case of church politics and envy. Then, in 1904, William’s wife Louisa died after a hot coal fell from the fire onto her dress with devastating effect.
Paul and his brother Ben (the only two children left at home), with their father moved from the church house into an attic above a grocery store (owned by a member of William’s old congregation), where the Rev Robeson now worked. They cooked and washed in a lean-to attached to the back of the store. They were hard times but the Rev Robeson was made of oak and gradually, and with the help of members of his old church, earned enough to build and start a church of his own. The Reverand’s original church may have disowned the Robeson family but the real church — its congregation — did not, as Robeson’s faithful biographer recounts:
“ The woman who ran the grocery store downstairs, along with other church sisters and neighbors, brought food from time to time (supplemented by bags of cornmeal, greens, yams, and peanuts sent up by relatives from Robersonville, North Carolina); and if Reverend Robeson had to visit a parishioner or be away overnight, one of the sisters would take young Paul home, sewing on his buttons, darning his socks, making him rice pudding and chocolate cake.”
As Robeson later wrote:
“ There must have been moments when I felt the sorrows of a motherless child, but what I most remember from my youngest days was an abiding sense of comfort and security.”
Paul was always remembered by the townspeople as a kindly open-hearted boy.
Paul’s father had a passion for oratory, and a voice that could carry clearly across a crowded church, or a gathering in a field. It was also William’s desire to pass on his oratory skills to his son; “ dwelling on the choice of the word, the turn of phrase, or the potency of an inflexion…” giving Paul speech after speech to memorise, going through them line by line. Afterwards Paul would perform them for his father’s judgement and the much loved smile if he was pleased. With those precious lessons out of the way, father and son would often play checkers (drafts), with William occasionally speaking of his time as a slave, and again as Paul’s biographer writes, his father was the influence:
“ If the tales were infrequent, they were also graphic; later in life Paul would recall how they haunted his memory and infused his singing of the slave spirituals with a special knowledge and poignancy. He marveled at his father’s refusal to remain in bondage and, ‘in all the years of his manhood,’ his refusal ‘ to be an Uncle Tom.’ Though he himself witnessed his father ‘taunted by the hideous injustices of the color bar,’ he never once saw in him a ‘hint of servility’; Reverend Robeson taught his children that the black man ‘was in every way the equal of the white man.’ Paul marveled, too, that his father always acted like ‘a perfect Christian,’ rejecting bitterness or even unkindliness. He taught Paul that he had a special responsibility to his race — but also taught him to care ‘for all people who were unfavorably treated’ and never to assume that whites, by definition, were as a group incapable of caring, reminding him, ‘ that whites as well as blacks had given him aid and comfort in his trek for freedom.”
In 1910 Paul attended the James L. Jamison “Colored School”, graduating in 1911 with a rendition of Founding Father, Patrick Henry’s, ‘An Appeal to Arms’, and quite captivated the assembly with his oratory. There would have been a smile on his father’s face I’m sure. Paul then spent a short period at Westfield’s unsegregated Washington School “…graduating at the head of his class…” entering Somerville High in 1912.
Paul’s obvious abilities can certainly be laid at his father’s door.
The Rev Robeson was a hugely loving parent, who was also demanding, and a strict disciplinarian, who expected his son to become involved in church life, at the same time earn money doing odd jobs to pay his way through school, as he had done. And Paul was no slouch, working as a kitchen boy, as well as working on a farm, and later shifts in the shipyards and brickyards, and then as a waiter at the Imperial Hotel at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, where all the guests “… were white and all the staff black.” Robeson remembered the job with some affection, not least hanging around with Oscar C. Brown, who later became a real estate developer and civil-rights activist. Brown worked as a bell-hop in the hotel, earning $60 for a summer’s work. Another of the “good chaps” working at the hotel was Fritz Pollard who later became the “…first black All-American football player, named a year before Robeson became the second.”
Fritz Pollard is quoted as saying that “…everyone loved Paul, and everywhere he went there was a great demand to hear his voice.”
Paul was as popular as a student as he was a waiter, as Duberman writes:
“ Most of Paul’s white classmates [at Somerville High]apparently believed…that his unfailingly courteous, Christian demeanor reflected the full range of his feelings, and that his penchant for remaining somewhat apart merely reflected a loner’s temperament. ‘ Well,’ Robeson later laconically observed, ‘ I was a good boy, sure enough — but I wasn’t that good!’ ”
It would seem that Robeson sometimes fell behind with assignments due to his love of football, but was “…always fun to be with.”
But as Jeff Sparrow writes in No Way But This:
“ Paul graduated top of his class his first year at Somerville. ‘Pop was pleased by that, I guess,’ he wrote, ‘ though it was only what he expected of me, and his attitude never allowed for feelings of exaggerated self-esteem.’ ”
And, in 1915, it would be at Somerville that Paul Robeson first played Othello.
In the same year, 1915, that 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 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 and 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, Music on My Mind, 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, Terrible Honesty:
“ 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 we 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 The Dreamy Kid was produced in 1919 with an all black cast, and five years later, O’Neill cast Paul Robeson as Jim Harris in All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
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, The Walls of Jericho and The Conjure Man Dies. 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.
To Be Continued…
Bibliography: Martin Bauml Duberman — Paul Robeson (The Bodley Head, London, 1989); Jeff Sparrow — No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe Publications, 2017); Willie The Lion Smith — Music on My Mind (The Jazz Book Club, by arrangement with MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1966)