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Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
Paul Robeson was one of the foremost African-Americans of the twentieth century. He was a world renowned singer and actor and a leading civil rights activist.
Robeson’s association with South Wales dates from 1928 when, whilst performing in ‘Show Boat’ in London’s West End, he met a group of unemployed miners who had walked to London to draw attention to the hardship and suffering endured by thousands of unemployed miners and their families in South Wales.
Robeson visited South Wales many times between 1929 and 1939, singing in various towns including Cardiff, Neath and Swansea. In 1938, he sang to the 7,000 people who attended the Welsh International Brigades Memorial at Mountain Ash to commemorate the 33 Welshmen who had died in Spain. He told the audience “I am here because I know that these fellows fought not only for me but for the whole world. I feel it is my duty to be here."
Robeson’s links with South Wales were reinforced when in 1939, he starred in The Proud Valley, a film about life in a mining community in the Rhondda.
Every year between 1952 and 1957, Robeson was invited to sing at the Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl but he was unable to travel because his passport had been withdrawn by the US Government because of his outspoken left wing and anti-racist views. In October 1957 however, Robeson was able to participate in the Miners’ Eisteddfod by means of a transatlantic telephone link to a secret recording studio in New York.
The South Wales miners added their voice and signatures to the international petitions that eventually forced the US Supreme Court to reinstate his passport in 1958.
At a reception given in his honour by the South Wales Area NUM in 1958, he told the audience, “You have shaped my life – I have learnt a lot from you. I am part of the working class. Of all the films I have made the one I will preserve is The Proud Valley.”
Unfortunately, Robeson’s health deteriorated during the 1960s and after his wife’s death in 1965, he stayed out of the public eye. Paul Robeson died in 1976.
Freedomways. Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner. (New York, 1965).
Paul Robeson Cymru Committee. Let Paul Robeson Sing! : a celebration of the life of Paul Robeson and his relationship with Wales. (Bevan Foundation, 2001).
Robeson, Paul. Here I stand: by Paul Robeson. (Boston, 1971, reprint of 1958 ed.)
Thompson, Allan Lord. Paul Robeson: artist and activist, on records, radio and television. (Wellingborough, 2000).
All items listed in the further reading are available for consultation in either the South Wales Miners’ Library or the Library and Information Centre, University of Wales Swansea. Click here to link to the library catalogue.
LINKS TO USEFUL WEBSITES:
Princeton Public Library site Paul Robeson on the web
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