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Paul Robeson’s legacy lives on in Philadelphia

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

The PBS television program American Masters said, “Paul Robeson was the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man. He was an exceptional athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author and political activist. His talents made him a revered man of his time, yet his radical political beliefs all but erased him from popular history.”

After years of accomplishments and strife, in 1966, Robeson came to Philadelphia, and remained here, living with his sister Marian Forsythe until his death in 1976.

Robeson attended Rutgers University on an academic scholarship, played five sports and won recognition as an All-American football player. After Rutgers, he attended law school at Columbia University and worked at a law firm. He left after the firm’s stenographer refused to take dictation from him and often used the “N” word. He returned to the theater where he had appeared in musicals while in law school, also playing for the NFL.

Robeson became one of the best-paid performers in the country, bringing African American spirituals to people who did not see them as a serious musical form. His mindset and popularity changed after he first went to Russia in 1934 and found that he was treated better there than in the United States. He spoke in support of workers and common people and marched against discrimination.

These actions made him a pariah in the eyes of the public, according to the Paul Robeson House & Museum website. The FBI put Robeson under surveillance in 1941, which lasted until he died. The State Department revoked his passport in 1950, preventing him from traveling abroad for concerts that had helped provide his salary.

After his passport was reinstated, Robeson regained some of his stature, but his accomplishments are still not fully recognized or acknowledged today. The American Masters program states, “Today, more than 100 years after his birth, Robeson is just beginning to receive the credit he is due.”

Philadelphians can learn about Paul Robeson at the Paul Robeson House & Museum, located at 4951 Walnut St. in West Philadelphia. Hours of operation are Thursday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours of the house are available by appointment. For more information, call 215-747-4675 or go to

The Paul Robeson House (Photo by G. Widman for VISIT PHILADELPHIA)
Categories: Education Milestones eNews


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