Paul Robeson: Baritone, Activist and Renaissance Man

Although Paul Robeson was born in New Jersey, for twelve years he made Enfield, Connecticut his home. The baritone and radio singer was best known for his title role in “Othello” in the 1930s and 1940s, which he portrayed in various venues between London and New York. Robeson performed in numerous American plays and Hollywood films, including Borderline (1930), The Emperor Jones (1933), and Show Boat (1936). Robeson performed regularly at the Bushnell Memorial Theater, having sung in their first Concert Series in 1945 with such songs as “Deep River” and “Ritual Fire Dance”.Beside his vocal talents, Paul Robeson was a true “renaissance man”; he was a former Columbia University graduate, former athlete and anti-racism activist. Mr. Robeson refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, and urged federal government to pass anti-lynching legislation. In the 1940s, Robeson put his career on hiatus to “talk up and down the nation against race hatred and prejudice”. As proof of his decision, Robeson marched in St. Louis alongside thirty members of the city’s Civil Rights Congress. He was once quoted as saying that he should raise his voice, “but not by singing pretty songs”.

Various actions were taken against Mr. Robeson, including the revoking of his passport by President Truman in 1950. Mr. Robeson moved to Enfield in 1941, and he called Connecticut home because many of his colleagues from Rutgers and the theater also lived there. Robeson performed annual concerts at Enfield High School for numerous years, in support of the Enfield Teachers Association Child Welfare Fund. Despite his connection with Enfield, some Connecticut officials considered Paul Robeson a disgrace to the state, most likely for his political stance and his active support of the civil rights movement. Paul Robeson died in 1976 in Philadelphia, but of Connecticut and Enfield proper, he remarked “here is to be our home for the rest of our lives”.

Sierra Dixon is a Research & Collections Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society

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