Paul Robeson, the son of William Drew Robeson, a former slave, was born in Princeton, New Jersey on 9th April, 1898.
Paul’s mother, Maria Louisa Bustin, came from a family that had been involved in the campaign for African-American Civil Rights.
William Drew Robeson was pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church for over twenty years.
He lost his post in 1901 after complaints were made about his “speeches against social injustice”. Three years later Paul’s mother died when a coal from the stove fell on her long-skirted dress and was fatally burned.
Paul’s father did not find another post until 1910 when he became pastor of the St. Thomas A.M.E. Zion Church in the town of Somerville, New Jersey. Paul was a good student but was expected to do part-time work to help the family finances.
At twelve Paul worked as a kitchen boy and later was employed in local brickyards and shipyards.
In 1915 Robeson won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University. Blessed with a great voice, Robeson was a member of the university’s debating team and won the oratorical prize four years in succession.
He also earned extra money my singing in local clubs.
Robeson, was a large man (six feet tall and 190 pounds) and excelled in virtually every sport he played (baseball, basketball, athletics, tennis).
In 1917 Robeson became the first student from Rutgers University to be chosen as a member of the All-American football team. However, in some games Robeson was dropped because the opponents refused to play against teams that included black players.
In 1920 Robeson joined the Amateur Players, a group of Afro-American students who wanted to produce plays on racial issues. Robeson was given the lead in Simon the Cyrenian, the story of the black man who was Jesus’s cross-bearer.
He was a great success in the part and as a result was offered the leading role in the play Taboo. The critics disliked the play but Robeson got good reviews for his performance.
In 1921 Robeson married Eslanda Goode, a histological chemist at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York.
They were soon parted when Robeson went to England to appear in the London production of Taboo, whereas Goode took up her post as the first African American analytical chemist at Columbia Medical Centre.