On this day in 1976, actor, athlete and activist Paul Robeson dies from a stroke in Philadelphia, PA; he was 77. Born to a former slave father and abolitionist mother, at 17 Robeson earned a scholarship to Rutgers University, the third African American to do so, and became one of the institution’s most stellar students. He received top honors for his debate and oratory skills, won 15 letters in four varsity sports, was named an All-American in football twice, was elected Phi Beta Kappa and became his class valedictorian.
From 1920 to 1923, Robeson earned a law degree from Columbia University, teaching Latin, playing pro football on the weekends and picking up acting parts to pay tuition. In 1921, he wed fellow Columbia student, journalist Eslanda Good; the two would endure a complicated relationship and marriage for more than 40 years, bringing one son into the world in 1927, Paul Robeson Jr.
Disenchanted by rampant racism in the law, Robeson turned to acting full-time, starring in both stage and film versions of The Emperor Jones and Show Boat, appearing on Broadway and becoming an immensely popular screen and and song presence of international renown. With this notoriety, Robeson spoke out against racism and became a world activist, traveling, lecturing and marching in support of civil rights and social justice. Visiting President Truman in 1946, Robeson was ejected from the White House for suggesting the continued lynching of blacks might lead to organized self-defense, and was later blacklisted during the paranoia of McCarthy’s HUAC-committee in the 1950’s.
Of his larger mission in life, Robeson remarked “we must join with the tens of millions all over the world who see in peace our most sacred responsibility.”