Star Athlete and AcademicPaul Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, to Anna Louisa and William Drew Robeson. Robeson's mother died from a fire when he was 6 and his clergyman father moved the family to Somerville, where the youngster excelled in academics and sang in church.
When he was 17, Robeson earned a scholarship to attend 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 elected Phi Betta Kappa and became his class valedictorian.
Then, from 1920 to 1923, Robeson earned a degree from Columbia University's Law School, teaching Latin and playing professional football on the weekends to pay tuition. In 1921, he wed fellow Columbia student, journalist Eslanda Goode. The two would be married for more than 40 years and have a son together in 1927, Paul Robeson Jr.
Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer in 1923, but left after encountering severe racism at his firm. With the encouragement of Eslanda, who would become his manager, he turned fully to the stage.
Major Force on Stage and ScreenIn 1924, Robeson played the lead in the production All God's Chillun Got Wings, and the following year, he starred in the London staging of The Emperor Jones—both by playwright Eugene O'Neill. Robeson also entered film when he starred in African-American director Oscar Micheaux's 1925 work, Body and Soul. Robeson continued to make waves in London in 1928 with his star turn on stage in Showboat, where he brought the house down with "Ol' Man River," a song that would become his signature.
In the late 1920s, Robeson and his family relocated to Europe, where they lived for more than a decade. He established both a singing and film career, and his next big-screen feature was 1930's Borderline. He was also in the 1933 movie re-make of The Emperor Jones and would be featured in six British films over the next few years, including the desert drama Jericho and musical Big Fella, both released in 1937. During this period, Robeson also starred in the second big-screen adaptation of Show Boat (1936). His last movie would be the Hollywood production Tales of Manhattan (1942), which he critiqued for its demeaning portrayal of African Americans.