Rockland Public Library, 80 Union St., will host “Paul Robeson: The Life & Times of an American Artist,” a presentation by Michael Paul Lund, Thursday, Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. in the Friends Community Room.

Paul Robeson (1898 — 1976) was an internationally renowned American bass-baritone concert singer, film and stage actor; All-American and professional athlete; writer; multi-lingual orator; scholar; and lawyer who also was noted for his wide-ranging social justice activism. Musical critic, columnist, writer and radio personality Lund of Lincolnville’s presentation on Robeson includes audio recordings, memorabilia, photographs and books.

Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J. He was the son of William Drew Robeson, a former slave; 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 more than 20 years. He lost his post in 1901 after complaints were made about his “speeches against social injustice.”

Robeson was awarded a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, the third black student in the history of the institution. Endowed 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 by singing in local clubs. Despite the openly racist and violent opposition he faced, Robeson became a 12-letter athlete excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track. He was named to the All American Football team on two occasions. 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. He toured England briefly with the play.

Robeson returned to the United States and went on to study law at Columbia in New York, receiving his degree there in 1923. There he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who was the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory. Robeson worked as a law clerk in New York, but once again faced discrimination and returned to drama and singing.

Robeson starred in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” in 1924, creating the starring role.  In 1930, he appeared in “Emperor Jones” in Germany before taking the title role in “Othello” in London. The play received a great deal of publicity as it included a scene where Robeson kissed a white actress, Peggy Ashcroft, who played the role of Desdemona. Despite the controversy, the show was a great success and ran for 295 performances.

Robeson is perhaps most widely recognized from the musical “Showboat,” where he snag, and changed the lines of, the song “Old Man River.” Between 1925 and 1942, Robeson appeared in 11 films, all but four of them British productions, after he and his wife moved to England in the late 1920s. For a total of nearly 11 years, he lived in the United Kingdom, with long periods away on singing tours, until the outbreak of World War II.

His concert career included recitals in New York, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Paris, Holland, London, Moscow and Nairobi. His travels taught him that racism was not as prevalent in Europe as it was back home. In the United States, he could not enter theaters through the front door or sing without intimidation and protest, but in London he was welcomed with open arms and standing ovations. Robeson believed in the universality of music and that by performing Negro spirituals and other cultures’ folk songs, he could promote intercultural understanding. As a result, he became a citizen of the world, singing for peace and equality in 25 languages.

During the 1940s, Robeson continued to have success on the stage, in film and in concert halls, but remained face to face with prejudice and racism. After finding the Soviet Union to be a tolerant and friendly nation, he began to protest the growing Cold War hostilities between the United States and the USSR. He also began to question why African-Americans should support a government that did not treat them as equals. At a time when dissent was hardly tolerated, Robeson was looked upon as an enemy by his government. In 1950, he was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and as a result the State Department denied him a passport. Blacklisted at home and unable to travel abroad, Robeson’s income dropped from $104,000 in 1947 to $2,000 in 1950.

In 1955, Robeson finally agreed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He denied being a member of the American Communist Party but praised its policy of being in favor of racial equality. One Congressman, Gordon Scherer of Ohio, commented that if he had felt so free in the Soviet Union why he had not stayed there. Robeson replied: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part just like you.”

In 1958, the government lifted the ban it had imposed. After obtaining his passport, Robeson moved to Europe where he lived for five years, spending his time writing, traveling and giving public lectures. Robeson, whose autobiography “Here I Stand” was published in 1958, died in Philadelphia after a decade of living in seclusion.

Special accommodations for persons with disabilities can be made with 48 hours notice by calling the library at 594-0310. This is one in a continuing Thursday series of literary, film and cultural offerings sponsored by the library and Friends of the Rockland Public Library. Admission is free.

Lund’s lifelong study and fascination with American popular song and the music industry has established him as a leading authority on these subjects. His sold-out lectures are a testament to his great enthusiasm and knowledge. His Robeson presentation at the library will be filmed by Kent Brown, a documentary producer from Berkeley, Calif., who plans to use extracts in a documentary his is doing on Black history. Recordings by Robeson will be available for purchase during intermission and at the conclusion of the 90-minute presentation.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to