ROBESON, Paul (1898-1976)
Plaque erected in 2002 by English Heritage at The Chestnuts, Branch Hill, Hampstead, London, NW3 7NA, London Borough of Camden
Music and Dance, Theatre and Film
PAUL ROBESON 1898-1976 Singer and Actor lived here 1929-1930
The American singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson was one of the first black performers to achieve world renown. At the peak of his fame in 1929–30 he lived at The Chestnuts, 1 Branch Hill, in Hampstead.
Paul Leroy Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of an escaped slave. He studied law at Columbia University but when racism shut him out of his chosen profession, he turned to the stage. He made his professional début in 1922 and first appeared on the London stage in the same year. His reputation was established with Show Boat, first performed in London in 1928, in which his commanding bass voice stood out, particularly with his rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’.
London was important in his career: his performance of Othello alongside Peggy Ashcroft and Sybil Thorndike at the Savoy Theatre in 1930 won many plaudits. He was the first black actor to play the part on the West End stage since 1860.
In 1943 the show moved to Broadway, where it became the longest running Shakespearean production of all time.
Robeson was highly engaged politically, and combined left-wing sympathies with open outrage at American race relations. Through his performances and rallying broadcasts, he became a leading figure in the struggle against fascism, colonialism and racism.
He joined the US Communist Party in 1934 and enjoyed huge popularity in Soviet Russia. He consequently suffered during the McCarthy years of the early 1950s and had his passport revoked. When his rights were restored in 1958, Robeson set out on a high-profile tour of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, where he lectured on inequality in America. In recognition of his championship of Communism, the Soviet Union named its largest oil tanker the Paul Robeson. He returned to America in 1963, his health failing, and died in obscurity in 1976 at the age of 77.