Paul Leroy Robeson was a Renaissance man who spent most of his life fighting injustice, for which he was roundly persecuted. He was an actor, orator, athlete, lawyer, singer, author, scholar, activist and linguist. Most of all, the “tallest man in the forest” – he stood 6-foot-3 – was an authentic American Hero.
Robeson attended Rutgers College on an academic scholarship, played five sports and won recognition as an All-American football player, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated valedictorian of his class at a time when most African Americans were denied entrance to white colleges. Even so, he was tormented on the gridiron; one player crushed his cleats into Robeson’s hand, tearing loose some fingernails.
Robeson persevered, and after Rutgers he attend law school at Columbia University in New York, and got a job at a local law firm after graduation. He left after the firm’s stenographer refused to take dictation from him because he was black. He found his way back into the theater, where he had appeared in the all-black “Shuffle Along” and other musicals while in law school, and never looked back.
He met his future wife Eslanda Cardozo Goode, also from a prominent family, while in law school in the 1920s. They had a son whom they named Paul Jr. Essie, as she was called, became a noted anthropologist, author and civil rights activist alongside her husband.
Robeson’s career spanned nearly 50 years, starting in 1915 at Rutgers. He went on to become a prolific entertainer both in the United States and abroad, playing title roles in “Othello,” “Showboat,” “The Emperor Jones” and other Broadway plays. He recorded albums and filled concert halls.