One of only 12 African-Americans in a high school of 200 students, he excelled academically and athletically, and came to realize that his talents would give him a certain acceptance in the white world - but not full acceptance.
At 17, he won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University in a statewide competition, and became only the third African-American to enroll there. Very big by the standards of that time - 6-2, 190 - he managed to survive the trials of proving himself on the football field, and became the star of the Rutgers squad.
He was only the second African-America in football history to make All-America (he made it twice, in 1917 and 1918). Walter Camp of Yale, who selected the All-America teams then, called Robeson "a veritable superman."
Although he earned the respect of his teammates and most opponents, his football career was not without racial incident. Caving in to pressure from school administrators, Rutgers Coach G. Foster Sanford regretfully held Robeson out of the contest his sophomore year when Washington and Lee refused to play against a black man. Given a second chance when West Virginia later made a similar demand, Sanford this time stood by his star and refused to bench him. The game went on as scheduled.
However great Paul Robeson was as a football player and an all-round athlete (overall, he won 15 letters in four different sports), he was much more than that.
He also won his college's oratory prize all four years (his father died in May of his junior year, but not before getting Paul to promise to compete in the upcoming oratorical competition). He was named to Phi Beta Kappa (the nation's most prestigious academic honor society) as a junior, and as a senior, he was one of only four men chosen for admission to the Cap and Skull Honor Society, for best representing the ideals of Rutgers.
He was class valedictorian, and delivered the commencement address, urging those in attendance to strive for a government in which "character shall be the standard of excellence," and "black and white shall clasp friendly hands in the consciousness of the fact that we are brethren and that God is the father of us all."
Following graduation, he studied law at Columbia, paying his tuition by playing professional football and helping to coach at his alma mater. While hospitalized with a football injury, he met Essie Goode, the woman who would become his wife. At her urging, he appeared in a musical at the Harlem YMCA.
Upon graduation from law school he accepted an offer from a wealthy, influential Rutgers alumnus to join his New York law firm, as its first African-American lawyer. But his legal career did not last long: when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He resigned, and never practiced law again.
Meantime, his show business career had moved beyond the Harlem YMCA, and he became a sensation singing "Ole Man River" in Jerome Kern's musical "Show Boat." His portrayal of Othello, Shakespeare's dark-skinned general who is married to a white woman and tormented by his suspicion that she is unfaithful to him, was so powerful and defining that no man has ever been able to play the role since without being compared (unfavorably) to him.
But for all his success, controversy began to dog him, sometimes owing to his being a black man playing the lead opposite white women, sometimes to his outspokenness on the subject of America's racial inequality, and later to his expressed belief that people - certainly people of other races - lived better in the Soviet Union than in the United States.
In New York, when he starred in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings, in which white actress Mary Blair played Robeson's wife, there were threats of riots and bombing.
But in London, at the opening night of The Emperor Jones, Robeson was called back for 12 ovations. Essie would write that in London, unlike New York, they could, "as respectable human beings, dine at any public place" - quite a contrast to concert tours in the United States, when he would frequently be denied hotel accomodations.
Once, in the middle of a concert in Kansas City, Robeson stopped, remarked on the racial segregation of the audience, and announced that he was continuing under protest. Hundreds of white listeners got up and walked out, upset at being lectured to by this black man.
In 1943, Robeson appealed to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to lift the major leagues' ban against black players.
His world travels had revealed to him the cruel irony that he was treated better in many foreign countries than he was in his own land, but unfortunately for him, the country and the system he chose as his ideal was one which most Americans viewed - rightly - with distrust. The Soviet Union.
His open support of Communism and the Soviet Union came to overshadow anything else of importance that he had ever done, and he spent much of his adult life under investigation by the FBI. Accused of being a Communist himself, he refused to deny the charge, saying, "Whether I am or am not a Communist is irrelevant. The question is whether American citizens, regardless of their political beliefs or sympathies, may enjoy their constitutional rights."
As a consequence of his forthright stand, his concerts were boycotted, and sometimes shut down by rioters. On at least two occasions, he escaped death after a wheel on his car had been tampered with.
Paul Robeson died in Philadelphia on January 23, 1976, at the age of 77.
I regret that time doesn't permit me to go in detail into the long, tangled career of Mr. Robeson as an entertainer, civil rights leader and national gadfly.
Undoubtedly he was used by the Communist Party and by the USSR - he was a highly visible American, and he made great propaganda for Stalin. He was susceptible to the Soviet line because from what he could see, blacks really were treated as equals in the Soviet Union while certainly treated as far less than that in the United States.
So, what should he have done? After visiting other nations and finding that blacks were treated as equals there, how should he have dealt with being treated as an inferior in the US? Should he have just taken his audiences' money and been content to bow and scrape and say, "Yassuh, this sho' is a fine country - and you white folks sho' do treat colored folk fine?"
He realized that his great talent and fame uniquely positioned him as a point man for black people everywhere, and he took advantage of that position. He criticized; he complained; he had the courage to keep telling the people in power things that they didn't want to hear. But he did not, so far as I can tell, advocate the overthrow of the United States government, violent or otherwise. He did not advocate racial separation or race warfare. He talked of racial equality - of those truths that Thomas Jefferson said we held to be self-evident.
It was undoubtedly unwise for him to be associated with the likes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin - to allow himself to be seen as a "Kremlin stooge" - as even some black leaders called him, in their efforts to distance themselves from him. But Robeson, like most everyone else in the world, was unaware of the monster that Stalin really was. It undoubtedly came as a great shock to Robeson when Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 revealed to the world the full extent of Stalin's butchery of his fellow countrymen - because he suffered an emotional collapse upon hearing the news.
But as unwise and naive as it was for Robeson to support the Soviet Union as a racial utopia, one must not forget that the same United States government that hounded him and cancelled his passport and subjected him to constant FBI surveillance because of his association with the Soviet Union was itself willing to get into bed with Stalin during World War II in order to combat the evil of Hitler.
It is difficult for most Americans to imagine the frustration with injustice and inequality that Paul Robeson lived with. When a person as talented and accomplished as Paul Robeson, one who had travelled the world and dined with its leaders, was still just another N-word in his own country, what, then, must have been the lot of the ordinary, everyday black person?
He was once one of the best-known Americans of his time. Today, far too few Americans have ever heard of him. Having lived much of his life disgraced in the eyes of much of America, he requires another look, one from the more enlightened viewpoint of history. In an attempt to do something about that, his son, Paul Robeson, Jr. has written "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson," a just-published biography of his amazing father.
Lest anyone doubt Paul Robeson's importance as a figure in the American Civil Rights movement, in 1973, at the celebration of his 75th birthday, Mrs. Coretta Scott King told a capacity crowd at Carnegie Hall in New York that he had been "buried alive" for fighting for the causes of civil rights and human dignity - decades before her husband.
Paul Robeson, indeed, had "a set of stones."