The 15th of April, in addition to being tax day, was the birthday of Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of the City of Chicago and also a brilliant scholar. According to the late Tribune columnist, Mike Royko, Washington was the most qualified mayor Chicago ever had. And I agree because Washington stood strong like a “steel column” against the “Tsunami” of racism that slammed against him, ignited by the plate tectonics of the Democratic city hall “machine.”
Washington was not the first brilliant, scholarly black man to stand against insurmountable odds and survive. Paul Leroy Robeson, whose birthday we celebrated on April 9, also stood against the racist Tsunami of the U.S. government for nearly 10 years and survived.
For our children’s sake, here is a brief history lesson on courage in action:
In 1949, Robeson made a speech before a group of Afro-Asian youth, telling colored people not to go to war against the Soviet Union, which in one generation had raised our people to full human dignity. Lloyd Brown a close friend and collaborator in the writing of Here I Stand, states in his preface: “And then suddenly, the spotlight was switched off. … The blackout was the result of a boycott of Robeson by the establishment that was meant both to silence him and to deny him any opportunity of making a living in this country. All doors to stage, screen, concert hall, radio, TV and recording studios were locked against him.”
Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, N.J. His broad range of talents was evident as early as high school where he was an outstanding student and athlete. In 1915, he centered Rutgers College on a scholarship and became the third African American to attend the school. Robeson graduated as class valedictorian in 1919. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and an All-American football player. He also lettered in more than eight other sports.
From 1920 to 1923, Robeson helped pay his way through Columbia University Law School in New York by working as an athlete and performer. He played professional football, served as assistant football coach at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and starred in the 1922 play, Taboo, in New York and London. Robeson was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
After graduating from law school, Robeson briefly worked in a law firm, but he resigned after a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. By 1924, he had devoted himself to his career as a performer, playing the lead roles in productions of two Eugene O’Neill plays: All God’s Chillon Got Wings, and The Emperor Jones. He played numerous stage roles during his career, but he was best known for his interpretation of the title character in Shakespeare’s Othello. Robeson created a storm?”in America only?”when he became the first known black actor to kiss a white female actress in a play or movie during the 1920s.
Paul Robeson was renowned worldwide for his talent as a singer. He was fluent when singing in different languages (Robeson could speak 16 or more). He helped establish African-American spirituals as a legitimate American art form. In addition to his famous repertoire of spirituals, Robeson became well known for performing and interpreting folk songs from around the world. “0l’ Man River,” from the musical Showboat, became his signature song. He got the “N” word removed from the song. Between 1925 and 1942, Robeson also appeared in several American and British movies, including Emperor Jones, Showboat, King Soloman’s Mines, and his favorite, The Proud Valley.
His image became the personification of human dignity. Discouraged by the limited roles available to black actors in Hollywood, he turned down roles that made fun of black people regardless of the money.
Robeson announced in 1942 that he would no longer appear in films. Well known as a community activist, he was an outspoken participant in labor and peace movements, and his public appearances were infused with his strong political beliefs, especially his principled stand against racism in the United States. He also worked to assist and support African liberation movements.
Robeson died on Jan. 23, 1976, at the age of 77. His posthumous honors reflect his wide range of accomplishments: In 1978 he was honored by the United Nations for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa, in 1995 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and in 1998 he received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Many schools, community centers and theaters have been named for him, as well as numerous academic and cultural institutions.
Paul Leroy Robeson is an outstanding image of what real manhood should be for today’s black males living in similar racist conditions.
Harold Washington and Paul Robeson are role models our children can look up to and have hope for their future, feeling proud that they are black. Black can be beautiful. Loving your heritage is not racist. Knowing your heritage helps you to respect and understand others who don’t look like you because love always conquers hate. Learn to love yourself first. It’s the greatest love of all.