SOAS University of London

Paul Robeson

Robeson studied African and Asian languages at SOAS in the 1930s, and is also known for being a prominent campaigner and civil rights activist. He was also one of the world’s leading bass-baritone singers, actors and athletes.

Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the truly inspirational figures of the 20th century, a man with a quite breathtaking array of talents and accomplishments, any one of which would have guaranteed fame. He was the leading anti-racism campaigner and human rights activist in the 1930s and 1940s in the US, and identified with victims of tyranny and oppression around the world. He was a forerunner of black consciousness and awareness and the first African-American to insist on playing dignified roles in films. He was also one of the world's leading bass-baritone concert singers of his era, as well as an internationally acclaimed actor and orator. He completed his first degree in 1919 at Rutgers College (University), where he was the only black student (and one of the finest college scholar-athletes in the country), then took an LL.B degree at Columbia Law School (1923).

Robeson first came to London in the 1920s, where he lived with his wife Eslanda ("Essie") Cardoza Goode from 1928 to 1939. Their son, Paul Robeson Jr., was born in 1927. At the time, London was a rallying point for African and Caribbean intellectuals and anti-colonial movements. It was here that Robeson met the influential Trinidadian intellectuals C.L.R. James and George Padmore, as well as prominent African activists who were to become leaders of their countries on independence, e.g., Nnamdi Azikiwe (President of Nigeria, 1963-66), Jomo Kenyatta (Prime Minister then President of Kenya, 1963-78), and (later on) Kwame Nkrumah (Prime Minister then President of Ghana, 1957-66). These important contacts helped to shape Robeson's political philosophy and he became increasingly active in a wide range of causes, prefiguring the Civil Rights movement. He was also a regular visitor to the Soviet Union. Robeson was made to suffer for his outspoken beliefs and support for the Soviet Union, and his passport was revoked from 1950 until 1958.

These same radical influences also stimulated and fed his growing interest in African civilizations, cultures and languages, and eventually led him to take classes in Swahili and phonetics at SOAS in 1934. Robeson was an accomplished linguist, and studied other major African languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and Zulu, in addition to important Asian languages, eg, Chinese and Hindi.

Robeson’s achievements were honoured by SOAS in 2006 with a ceremony organised by Professor Philip Jaggar. At the ceremony the late Tony Benn MP and Sir Willard White, one of the leading bass-baritones in the world, were joined by Director’s and former Director’s to unveil a commemorative plaque positioned in the stairwell of college building.