Paul Robeson's Birthday

Paul Robeson's Birthday

Date Observed: April 9
Locations: Communities nationwide

Paul Robeson, scholar, singer, actor, civil rights activist, and athlete, is remembered on his birthday, April 9, in various locations around the world, particularly since his death in 1976.

Historical Background

Born in 1898, Paul Robeson was the son of William Robeson, an escaped slave who became a Presbyterian minister, and Maria Bustill Robeson, a school teacher. Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and received a scholarship to attend Rutgers College (now Rutgers University) where he graduated as valedictorian. While at Rutgers, he also participated in four sports - football, basketball, baseball, and track - and earned 12 varsity letters.

Robeson went on to Columbia University, where he met and married Eslanda (Essie) Cardozo Goode, who eventually became a scientist and journalist. The couple had one child, Paul Robeson Jr.

After earning his law degree in 1923, Robeson joined a New York City law firm, but was discouraged by the racial discrimination he experienced. He quit the legal profession, and with his wife's encouragement, launched a stage career as an actor and singer. Among his many accomplishments were performances of Shakespeare's Othello in London, sold-out concerts in Europe and at Carnegie Hall, starring roles in musicals and films, and hundreds of recordings.

Throughout his acting and singing career Robeson also developed controversial political views. During a 1930s concert tour in the Soviet Union, he was influenced by socialist ideas. In the Soviet Union and other parts of Europe, Robeson and his family were able to live without the racism they experienced in the United States.

He frequently spoke out against racism, protested segregation practices in the United States, and refused to criticize the Soviet Union during the anti-Communist period of the late 1940s and the early 1950s. As a result, his political views brought condemnation from many sources, not the least of which was the U.S. government. He was labeled a Communist, and his passport was revoked for eight years, preventing any concert tours abroad. In the United States, theaters, concert halls, and other venues refused to allow him a stage.

In spite of continual harassment and a great loss of income, he continued his efforts for civil rights and the labor and peace movements. He worked diligently to improve the lives of common people everywhere.

During the 1970s, the U.S. public once again began to recognize Paul Robeson's talents and achievements. But not until after his death in 1976 were efforts made to accurately portray his life.

Creation of the Observance

No single celebration of Paul Robeson's birthday on April 9 marks the first observance. But there were many memorials held after his death in 1976. Since the late 1970s, Robeson has been commemorated in cities and towns around the world with proclamations and resolutions that declare April 9 Paul Robeson Day.


Although Robeson's birthday commemorations have been observed to this day, special centennial celebrations took place on April 9, 1998. There were more than 400 observances of Robeson's birthday in the United States, Canada, and other countries. Museums, libraries, and schools featured Robeson exhibits. Film festivals and musical presentations paid tribute to Robeson's work. In school classrooms, students observed Paul Robeson's Birthday by learning about his life. Choral readings, speeches, and newspaper and magazine articles honored him on that day, as did documentaries and concerts. Each year the King County government in Washington state conducts a Paul Robeson Scholar-Athlete Award program, and Rutgers University, Robeson's alma mater, offers a scholarship in his name.

Paul Robeson has also been remembered with musical tributes, induction into the Rutgers University Football Hall of Fame, dedication of buildings and statues, peace movement and labor union commemorations, a U.S. postage stamp, and multimedia exhibits of his life.

Contacts and Web Sites

King County Courthouse 516 Third Ave. Seattle, WA 98104 206-296-0100 or 800-325-6165

Paul Robeson Cultural Center Rutgers University 600 Bartholomew Rd. Piscataway, NJ 08854 732-445-3545; fax: 732-445-3151

Further Reading

Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson. New York: The New Press, 1995. Foner, Philip S. Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, and Interviews, a Centennial Celebration 1918-1974 . Secacus, NJ: Lyle Stuart/Citadel Press, 1982. Gerlach, Larry R. "Robeson, Paul." In African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Writing by Paul Robeson

Here I Stand. 1958. Reprint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Basic Beliefs

Paul Robeson summed up some of his basic beliefs in his book Here I Stand :

"I learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind. . . . This belief in the oneness of humankind, about which I have often spoken in concerts and elsewhere, has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race."
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To ignore that and to do little audio documentaries about old ball-players and celebrate Paul Robeson's birthday and do a documentary on maple syruping in Vermont is just perverse.