SOAS University of London

Paul Robeson SOAS tribute with the late Tony Benn now available on YouTube

30 April 2014
Paul Robeson

A tribute to Paul Robeson was held at SOAS, University of London, celebrating Robeson's contribution to humanity and his status as one of SOAS's greatest alumni on 20 September 2006. The complete event, organised by Professor Philip Jaggar, Emeritus Professor of West African Linguistics, is now available on YouTube.

Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (1898-1976) was the leading anti-racism campaigner and human rights activist in the 1930s and 1940s in the USA, 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. Robeson lived in London with his family throughout the 1930s, and in 1934 registered at SOAS for classes in Swahili and phonetics.

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The SOAS Tribute to Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Phil Jaggar

Organised by Philip Jaggar, (Emeritus) Professor of West African Linguistics at SOAS, the celebration included the late Tony Benn as the guest speaker, and he described Robeson as someone who “spoke of all the things the human race needs if it is to survive and prosper”. Sir Willard White, another eminent bass-baritone, also joined in the tribute and sang the iconic numbers ‘Ol' Man River’ and ‘Deep River’ – both of which were sung at Robeson's funeral in Harlem in 1976.

There were also contributions from Terry Bishop (Registrar, SOAS, 1974-1990), Dr Akin Oyetade, then Head of the Department of Africa, SOAS, Professor Colin Bundy, former Director and Principal of SOAS, 2001-2006, and Professor Paul Webley, Director and Principal of SOAS since 2006.

Paul Robeson plaque pic

A special commemorative plaque was unveiled by Colin Bundy, and is displayed on the first floor foyer area. In his tribute, Tony Benn said when young people come to SOAS and see the plaque they will realise that they are part of the inheritance of Paul Robeson and all that he achieved.

By a truly amazing coincidence, as part of the Graduation ceremonies in 2007, Professor Jaggar organised a special presentation for the family of Bernhard Herzberg, who died at the age of 97 just after completing his MA in African Studies. Bernhard's younger brother Hans Herzberg saw the Robeson plaque and to our astonishment announced that he had actually accompanied Robeson and his wife as interpreter when they visited East Berlin in the early 1960s!