The Voice of a Race: The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

Article excerpt

Paul Robeson (1898-1976), renowned for his legendary title portrayals in Othello and The Emperor Jones and his deep-voiced renditions of Negro spirituals, was arguably the most prominent Black American during the years between the two world wars. In The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939, the first of a two-volume biography, his son Paul Robeson Jr. chronicles both the professional and personal lives of his father, often drawing from the previously unpublished contents of his parents' private diaries and letters. The son of a former slave, Robeson lettered in four sports, including football, at Rutgers University, and was the valedictorian of his graduating class. He went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University, but in a fortuitous moment abandoned his legal career to pursue a life on stage. Although he had previously performed in amateur productions, Robeson's professional work as a stage actor and concert vocalist (he also appeared on screen; his first movie was Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul) began in Harlem during the Renaissance. His career would eventually take him and his wife, Eslanda "Essie" Robeson, throughout Europe. From the beginning, Robeson was vocal about the perception of African Americans in theater however it would be years before Robeson spoke out about political issues against segregation and for workers rights, and in defense of the Soviet Union. The following excerpt from the recently published The Undiscovered Paul Robeson chronicles the early years between 1923 and 1925 when Robeson's career began to flourish.

By February 1923, Paul had made his choice. He decided to concentrate on seeking position in a major Wall Street law firm and on preparing for the New York state bar examination. His graduation from Columbia Law School was inauspicious and without ceremony Two official letters from the registrar had arrived certifying that he had completed the requirements for a bachelor of law degree and that the degree would be granted on February 28. Paul chose to receive it by mail. Meanwhile, he appealed to his football coach at Rutgers, Foster Sanford, who had been instrumental in arranging his acceptance to Columbia Law School, for help once again. Sanford called a Rutgers alumnus and trustee from the class of 1890, Louis W. Stotesbury, who headed a powerful law firm specializing in estates and wills.

Stotesbury invited Paul to come in for an interview and was so impressed with him that he not only hired him on the spot but also assigned him to draft the brief for a phase of the high-profile Gould Will case that the firm was litigating. The case had grown out of a dispute over the estate of prominent financier Stephen Jay Gould. Paul accepted the challenge and fashioned a brief that was used essentially unaltered when the case came to trial. His efficiency and meticulous, thorough work won Stotesbury's strong approval.

Almost everyone else at the firm went out of their way to register their hostility in a variety of small ways. Paul ignored the slights until a stenographer who he had asked to take down a legal document stepped over his threshold of tolerance. She announced acidly that she never took dictation "from a nigger" and stalked out.

Paul explained the situation to Stotesbury, who listened sympathetically, indicating that he could readily eliminate the worst aspects of Paul's mistreatment by the staff; however, he was frank in addressing the broader and far more intractable racial discrimination that Paul would face in the legal profession. Present and future white clients would not agree to have "a colored man" as their trial lawyer, and many judges would be prejudiced against him because of his race. His career prospects were severely limited in the white law market. But, Stotesbury added, there was one alternative worth consideration. He then made a "franchise" offer: Paul could head a Harlem branch office of the firm. …


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