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Paul Robeson: Remaking a Fallen Hero

March 27, 1972
March 27, 1972

Table of Contents
March 27, 1972

Yesterday/Paul Robeson
The Ball
Ian Player
Braaack!
People
College Basketball
Hockey
Best
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Paul Robeson: Remaking a Fallen Hero

After 25 years, public fury is crumbling before historical fact

Beginning with his football days at Rutgers, when sportswriters hailed him in such pulp-fiction terms as "the colored giant" or "the dark cloud," Paul Robeson established himself as one of the most variously gifted men of his time. He was also among the most embattled, his espousal of unpopular causes gradually obscuring his protean achievements. Now 73 and ailing, this son of a runaway slave can claim the distinction of having been cheered as an All-America and reviled as un-American all within the same remarkable lifetime.

This is an article from the March 27, 1972 issue Original Layout

Even after his friendship with the Soviet Union brought him into disfavor at home, Robeson continued to find adulation in other places. A large man with an almost Olympian presence, he won acclaim as an actor in London in the years following his graduation from Rutgers in 1919, and his rich basso enthralled audiences on concert tours through Western Europe, Africa and behind the Iron Curtain. Robeson's compass today is far narrower: he lives modestly in a largely black neighborhood in Philadelphia, no longer raising his voice in anger or song. He has made no public appearances since the death of his wife in 1965, and he defers in political matters to his son Paul Jr.

The younger Robeson says his father's Marxism remains as fervent as ever, but if Robeson's sympathies have not changed, public reaction has. His recordings, once banned from radio because of his political views, are showing up in music stores again and his autobiographical manifesto. Here I Stand, long out of print, has recently been reissued by Beacon Press.

It has been a fitful process, but Robeson has enjoyed a particularly robust revival at his alma mater, too. A writer for Targum, the Rutgers paper, said upon Robeson's graduation, "May Rutgers never forget this noble son," yet during the McCarthy years some alumni contemplated having his name stricken from the New Jersey school's alumni publications. Today Rutgers' new student center is named after him, and at a public ceremony honoring Robeson in New Brunswick two years ago former Rutgers President Mason Gross acknowledged him as "one of Rutgers' most distinguished graduates."

Robeson is not sufficiently redeemed, however, to have gained induction into the college Football Hall of Fame, an oversight made all the more glaring by the fact that the shrine is situated at Rutgers, where the first college game was played in 1869. If that game was the biggest milestone in Rutgers' football history, the second biggest was probably Paul Robeson's arrival there in 1915.

The son of a minister who had fled slavery in North Carolina as a teen-ager, Robeson became an improbable Frank Merriwell. He won his class oratorical contest four straight years, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and chosen commencement speaker of Rutgers' Class of 1919. At 6'3" and 194 pounds, he starred in four sports—football, baseball, basketball and track—and is credited with once having saved a student who fell over a canal embankment.

Robeson had the personality to properly complete the picture. "He was a modest and genial young man," remembers Harry Rockafeller, an end on the 1915 team who later served for many years as Rutgers' athletic director. Once Robeson's gifts became known, he was called upon for spirituals at the weekly team dinner, and it was not uncommon to find him walking along College Avenue arm in arm with Coach George Foster Sanford, their voices joined in a rousing rendition of On the Banks of the Raritan. But such camaraderie developed only after Robeson—known in time as "Robey"—had met and overcome strong resistance to the idea of a black football player at Rutgers.

"Coach Sanford called us together and said a Negro was coming out," remembers one of Robeson's teammates, Ralph White, now a retired textile agent in Massachusetts. "We said, 'Send him out—we'll kill him.' "

Harry Rockafeller insists that the rough treatment Robeson received was the same meted out to white freshmen players. But when a white teammate stepped on his hand, tearing off several fingernails, Robeson ran out of patience. He flung the man violently to the ground, then played in a rage the rest of the afternoon. Sanford watched the havoc until the welfare of his squad seemed in jeopardy, and he finally bellowed: "All right, Robeson, you're on the varsity."

Robeson thereafter directed his wrath against Rutgers' opponents. For his debut Sanford sent Robeson in at tackle against Rensselaer Poly, and Rutgers' first black player quickly recovered a fumble to set up a Scarlet touchdown in a 96-6 romp. As the season went on, Robeson became a starting tackle, and Rutgers finished with a 7-1 record.

During the following summer Robeson worked at Rhode Island's Narragansett Pier, where many Negro collegians were waiters and busboys. He made friends there with a Brown University football player named Frederic (Fritz) Pollard, who often played the piano that summer while Paul sang. Pollard recalls Robey's game against Brown that fall. Although Brown won 21-3, Robeson was marvelous in defeat, especially on defense. Pollard, now a retired public-relations man in New Rochelle, N.Y., says, "Robey would tear you to pieces. Then he'd reach down, pick you up and ask, 'Did I hurt you?' " Robeson and Pollard both became All-Americas.

Well over 200 pounds now, playing end and occasionally linebacker, Robeson was a menacing figure in baggy sweater, moleskins and scarlet socks. He tore open giant holes for Rutgers' ball-carriers, made circus catches of passes and roamed the field on defense. A New York Herald Tribune writer was moved to describe him luridly as "a veritable Othello of Battle."

Rutgers lost only three of 16 games in 1917 and 1918. In a 90-0 rout of a World War I service team, Fort Wads-worth, Robey caught touchdown passes of 40 and 37 yards. In a 14-10 loss to Syracuse, the only defeat for a 1917 team still regarded as one of Rutgers' best, he caught two passes and intercepted another to halt a Syracuse drive. He outplayed Frankie Frisch in a 27-6 win over Fordham, and five days before Armistice Day in 1918 led Rutgers to a 41-0 win over Hoboken Naval Transport, whose star, Charley Brickley, had been a three-time All-America at Harvard. Early in the game Robeson tackled Brickley so hard that the celebrated halfback spent the rest of the day dawdling in the background. (Freeze the moment to extract an irony: Brickley was convicted in the 1930s of grand larceny, and he, too, has been kept out of the Hall of Fame.)

Robeson's finest hour came in his junior year against the Newport Naval Reserve. Ballyhooed at the time as the finest collection of talent ever assembled on one team, Newport was unbeaten and unscored upon. It boasted onetime All-Americas at nearly every position, including Yale's Clinton Black, Cornell's Charley Barrett and Syracuse's Chris Schlachter. But Robeson and the rest of the Rutgers line, outweighed by 20 pounds a man, gained the upper hand during a 62-yard touchdown drive that included a 15-yard pass from Quarterback Bud Whitehill to Robeson. When Rutgers recovered a Newport fumble on the following kickoff and quickly moved to the enemy six, surprise turned to shock. Shock turned to awe when a Whitehill-to-Robeson pass made it 14-0. Newport, desperate to score in the second half, ran wide, but Robey was always there to bury the ballcarrier. On line plunges he was immovable. When Newport did manage a serious threat at the Rutgers 28, Robeson ended it with an interception. The final score was 14-0. Walter Camp, who was there, later called Robeson "the greatest defensive end to ever trod the gridiron."

Enrolling in Columbia Law School after his Rutgers days, Robeson ventured out on weekends—at up to $500 a game—as one of a handful of big-name stars in the new American Professional Football Association, forerunner of the NFL. He played for clubs in Hammond, Ind., Akron, Ohio and Milwaukee but quit after three seasons for a career on the stage.

Robeson began acting with appearances in productions at a YWCA in Harlem, but before long, after taking his degree from Columbia in 1923 and briefly practicing law, he was starring in two Eugene O'Neill plays, All God's Chillun Got Wings and Emperor Jones. Launching his singing career next, he gave a concert of Negro spirituals in Greenwich Village, a performance that moved Alexander Woollcott to acclaim him "the finest musical instrument wrought by nature in our time." Success abroad followed, including stardom in the English production of Show Boat and a London triumph in 1930 in Othello, a role he would also play in New York in 1943 in what remains the longest Shakespearean run in Broadway history.

During the Depression years, starting with his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1934, Robeson emerged as a political figure. "I walked in dignity for the first time," he said of his Russian experience, and soon he was actively supporting left-wing causes. He sang for Loyalist troops in Spain and for coal miners in Wales. Back in the U.S., he refused to perform before Jim Crow audiences. When the Cold War began in the late 1940s, Robeson came under attack by congressional investigators, one of whom demanded to know why he did not move to the Soviet Union.

"Because," Robeson answered, "my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you."

By now a deeply controversial figure, Robeson was barred from performing in some cities, and a concert at which he was to sing in Peekskill, N.Y. ended in a riot. When he refused in 1950 to sign an affidavit that he was not a Communist Party member (an affiliation he had already denied in testimony in California in 1946), the State Department revoked his passport. Eight years later the Supreme Court struck down the affidavit requirement, and Robeson traveled behind the Iron Curtain before ill health brought him home in 1963.

Robeson was simply a man ahead of his time; a generation of young Americans has escalated protest far beyond speeches and passive resistance. He stood practically alone in 1949 when he deemed it "unthinkable that American Negroes could go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations." Long before anybody made much of black pride, Robeson was learning such African dialects as Yoruba and Efik—among some 20 languages he spoke with varying fluency—and urging U.S. blacks to affirm their African birthright. By 1964 Robeson was able to observe with satisfaction that "today it is the Negro artist who does not speak out who is considered to be out of line."

The Establishment attitudes in sport concerning Robeson's political activity have been predictably slow to change. At least one football publication listed only a 10-man All-America team for 1918 rather than print Robeson's name. The Football Hall of Fame took a similar tack in failing to list him among its 330 immortals. "We take into account citizenship as well as accomplishments on the field," explains Jimmie McDowell, the shrine's executive director. "We want a player's activities after college to bring honor to the game." The remark implies that the Hall of Fame screens and approves the politics of every Red Grange and Sammy Baugh, a premise that is not only questionable but irrelevant. Since reversing its field on Robeson, Rutgers has been plumping forthrightly for his election into the shrine. Les Unger, the school's sports-information director, says pointedly, "We're officially proud of Robeson now." Somehow, it still sounds less wholehearted than an earlier view, one expressed in the Scarlet Letter, the Rutgers yearbook, on the occasion of Robeson's graduation more than a half century ago:

All hats off to Robey, men,
All honor to his name!
On the diamond, court or football field
He's brought old Rutgers fame.

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