Beginning with his football days at Rutgers, when sportswriters hailed him in such pulp-fiction terms as "the colored giant" or "the dark cloud," Paul Robeson established himself as one of the most variously gifted men of his time. He was also among the most embattled, his espousal of unpopular causes gradually obscuring his protean achievements. Now 73 and ailing, this son of a runaway slave can claim the distinction of having been cheered as an All-America and reviled as un-American all within the same remarkable lifetime.
Even after his friendship with the Soviet Union brought him into disfavor at home, Robeson continued to find adulation in other places. A large man with an almost Olympian presence, he won acclaim as an actor in London in the years following his graduation from Rutgers in 1919, and his rich basso enthralled audiences on concert tours through Western Europe, Africa and behind the Iron Curtain. Robeson's compass today is far narrower: he lives modestly in a largely black neighborhood in Philadelphia, no longer raising his voice in anger or song. He has made no public appearances since the death of his wife in 1965, and he defers in political matters to his son Paul Jr.
The younger Robeson says his father's Marxism remains as fervent as ever, but if Robeson's sympathies have not changed, public reaction has. His recordings, once banned from radio because of his political views, are showing up in music stores again and his autobiographical manifesto. Here I Stand, long out of print, has recently been reissued by Beacon Press.
It has been a fitful process, but Robeson has enjoyed a particularly robust revival at his alma mater, too. A writer for Targum, the Rutgers paper, said upon Robeson's graduation, "May Rutgers never forget this noble son," yet during the McCarthy years some alumni contemplated having his name stricken from the New Jersey school's alumni publications. Today Rutgers' new student center is named after him, and at a public ceremony honoring Robeson in New Brunswick two years ago former Rutgers President Mason Gross acknowledged him as "one of Rutgers' most distinguished graduates."
Robeson is not sufficiently redeemed, however, to have gained induction into the college Football Hall of Fame, an oversight made all the more glaring by the fact that the shrine is situated at Rutgers, where the first college game was played in 1869. If that game was the biggest milestone in Rutgers' football history, the second biggest was probably Paul Robeson's arrival there in 1915.
The son of a minister who had fled slavery in North Carolina as a teen-ager, Robeson became an improbable Frank Merriwell. He won his class oratorical contest four straight years, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and chosen commencement speaker of Rutgers' Class of 1919. At 6'3" and 194 pounds, he starred in four sports—football, baseball, basketball and track—and is credited with once having saved a student who fell over a canal embankment.
Robeson had the personality to properly complete the picture. "He was a modest and genial young man," remembers Harry Rockafeller, an end on the 1915 team who later served for many years as Rutgers' athletic director. Once Robeson's gifts became known, he was called upon for spirituals at the weekly team dinner, and it was not uncommon to find him walking along College Avenue arm in arm with Coach George Foster Sanford, their voices joined in a rousing rendition of On the Banks of the Raritan. But such camaraderie developed only after Robeson—known in time as "Robey"—had met and overcome strong resistance to the idea of a black football player at Rutgers.
"Coach Sanford called us together and said a Negro was coming out," remembers one of Robeson's teammates, Ralph White, now a retired textile agent in Massachusetts. "We said, 'Send him out—we'll kill him.' "
Harry Rockafeller insists that the rough treatment Robeson received was the same meted out to white freshmen players. But when a white teammate stepped on his hand, tearing off several fingernails, Robeson ran out of patience. He flung the man violently to the ground, then played in a rage the rest of the afternoon. Sanford watched the havoc until the welfare of his squad seemed in jeopardy, and he finally bellowed: "All right, Robeson, you're on the varsity."
Robeson thereafter directed his wrath against Rutgers' opponents. For his debut Sanford sent Robeson in at tackle against Rensselaer Poly, and Rutgers' first black player quickly recovered a fumble to set up a Scarlet touchdown in a 96-6 romp. As the season went on, Robeson became a starting tackle, and Rutgers finished with a 7-1 record.