Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the truly inspirational figures of the 20thcentury, a man with a quite breathtaking array of talents and accomplishments, any one of which would have guaranteed fame. He was the leading anti-racism campaigner and human rights activist in the 1930’s and 1940’s in the USA, and identified with victims of tyranny and oppression around the world. He was a forerunner of black consciousness and awareness and the first African-American to insist on playing dignified (non-stereotyped) roles in films. He was also one of the world’s leading bass-baritone concert singers of his era, as well as an internationally acclaimed actor and orator. He completed his first degree in 1919 at Rutgers College (University), where he was the only black student (and one of the finest college scholar-athletes in the country), then took an LL.B degree at Columbia Law School (1923).    

    Robeson first came to London in the 1920’s, where he lived with his wife Eslanda (“Essie”) Cardoza Goode from 1928 to 1939. Their son, Paul Robeson Jr., was born in 1927. At the time, London was a rallying point for African and Caribbean intellectuals and anti-colonial movements. It was here that Robeson met the influential Trinidadian intellectuals C.L.R. James and George Padmore, as well as prominent African activists who were to become leaders of their countries on independence, e.g., Nnamdi Azikiwe (President of Nigeria, 1963-66), Jomo Kenyatta (Prime Minister then President of Kenya, 1963-78), and (later on) Kwame Nkrumah (Prime Minister then President of Ghana, 1957-66). These important contacts helped to shape Robeson’s political philosophy and he became increasingly active in a wide range of causes, prefiguring the Civil Rights movement. He was also a regular visitor to the Soviet Union. Robeson was made to suffer for his outspoken beliefs and support for the Soviet Union, and his passport was revoked from 1950 until 1958.

   These same radical influences also stimulated and fed his growing interest in African civilizations, cultures and languages, and eventually led him to take classes in Swahili and phonetics at SOAS in 1934. Robeson was an accomplished linguist, and studied other major African languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and Zulu, in addition to important Asian languages, e.g., Chinese and Hindi.

   On September 20, 2006, to celebrate Robeson’s contribution to humanity and his status, in the opinion of many people, as SOAS’s greatest alumnus, the School (through Philip Jaggar) organized a celebratory tribute. It was a great privilege to have as our guest speaker Tony Benn, the former cabinet member and MP, and also Sir Willard White, one of the leading bass-baritones in the world, who joined us and sang the iconic “Ol’ Man River” and “Deep River” (both sung at Robeson’s funeral in Harlem in 1976). There were also contributions from Terry Bishop (Registrar, SOAS, 1974-1990), Akin Oyetade (Head, Department of Africa, SOAS), Colin Bundy (former Director and Principal, SOAS, 2001-2006), and Paul Webley (Director and Principal, SOAS, 2006-). Colin Bundy unveiled the special commemorative plaque, and there were some touching personal reminiscences of Paul Robeson.

   To celebrate Robeson’s great musical legacy, the Welwyn Garden City (Welsh) Male Voice Choir (Les Rayner conductor, Mary Anstey accompanist) sang some of his favourite spirituals (see clip below), in addition to some Welsh songs in recognition of his support for Welsh miners and his special relationship with Wales (they met on the “hunger” marches in the late 1920’s). The Male Voice Choir were followed by the New World Voices gospel choir, and the whole event was filmed.   

In September 2007, Philip Jaggar visited Paul Robeson Jr. in New York and presented him with a framed copy of his father’s (1934) SOAS registration documents, together with a photograph of Paul Webley and himself, taken in front of the plaque now mounted in the main building (see 1st floor landing). He also presented two framed copies to Rutgers University, and gave a lecture on Robeson’s contributions in Professor Abena Busia’s “Harlem Renaissance” class.

 

Welwyn Garden City Male Voice Choir singing “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”