Born in Princeton, the son of a slave, a lawyer, athlete, activist, actor and singer, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) even had an heirloom tomato named for him. Born in Princeton, his mother died in a fire when he was six. Educated at Rutgers, he was honored with 15 letters in sports, as well as honors for debate and oratory skills. He graduated as class valedictorian. While at Columbia law school, he taught Latin and played professional football. In 1921 he married journalist Eslanda Goode and they remained married until her death in 1965. Their son was named Paul Robeson, Jr. (1927-2014).
Robeson practiced law but encountered racism, so he left to pursue a stage career. Eugene O’Neill cast him in the first production of
All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924 and starred in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, first on the London stage and later in a film version. However, it was Florenz Ziegfeld who gave him the greatest opportunity when he played Joe in Show Boat, where he introduced audiences to "Ol' Man River."
Robeson spent much of the 1930s in Europe, as both a singer and film actor, but returned to Hollywood to film the 1936 version of Show Boat, costarring Hattie McDaniel and Irene Dunne. He worked in films until 1942.
Politically active, he addressed racial injustice, was anti-Nazi and entertained the troops overseas. His appearances in the Soviet Union brought him great respect. He learned Russian, but found himself Blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Following a 1943 Broadway revival of Othello, co-starring Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer, he was listed as a communist and was denied a passport. His performance career and finances were seriously damaged. Robeson spent the time writing his autobiography, Here I Stand, published in 1958. His passport reinstated, he remained in Europe until his wife’s death. Health problems required him to return to the U.S. where he passed on at the age of 77 in Philadelphia.
The Robeson legacy has aroused curiosity in the last decade, because he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The subject of a PBS American Master’s program; Martin Duberman has written an intensely complete biography; and a boxed set of his films is available from the Criterion Collection. A healthy collection of his work is also available on YouTube.
The Forgotten Tragicomedian
Bert Williams (1874-1922) was one of the most notable performers in Vaudeville and on Broadway. While he maintained the convention of wearing blackface over his own face, which lent a tragic cast to his persona, he was capable of bringing humor to his character. He was the first African American to appear on Broadway. Innovative and respected, W.C. Fields described him as both the funniest and saddest man he ever encountered.
He was born in the Bahamas, but his family moved to New York when he was a child. He developed his skills in classes and excelled at choir. After high school, he joined a traveling minstrel show, first in California and later in Hawaii. He teamed with George Walker, developing an act that upgraded racist humor and included song and dance. In 1896, the pair appeared in Victor Herbert’s operetta, The Gold Bug.
From Broadway, Walker and Williams continued in Harlem’s Music Halls, where ragtime served them well as they popularized the Cakewalk dance. After Williams married Charlotte Thompson, the pair starred in musicals. In Dahomey was a major success and even played in London, performing for King Edward VII. While their shows Abyssinia and Bandanna Land were successful, racism still plagued them. George Walker died in 1911.
Williams continued to work without his partner, and during this time, his most famous song, “Nobody,” introduced in Abyssinia, became his signature song. In 1910 he joined the Ziegfeld Follies, which made him a major star. He continued to work through World War I, but while on tour, he developed pneumonia and heart trouble. Bert Williams died in 1922. Since his passing, he’s been largely forgotten, although several recordings have been released on CD, two biographies have been published, and he was portrayed by Ben Vereen (as the character Bert Robbins), in the film, Funny Lady. Actor Avon Long introduced “Nobody” to modern audiences in the musical revue, Bubbling Brown Sugar, a show in need of a major revival.
The Movie Star
While some of Paul Robeson’s work is available on film, it’s the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949) whose performances are the most accessible. The young Shirley Temple knew him as “Uncle Billy” and they danced together in a pair of films at 20th Century Fox. Before Hollywood, though, there were decades of performances in vaudeville and on Broadway.
Known as Mr. Bojangles, his tap-dancing style and jovial manner quickly led to fame. Born in Virginia, he was raised from the age of 7 by his grandmother. He began dancing when he was young and at 9, started touring in what would later become a vaudeville act.
While “Bojangles” was a regular in nightclubs and music halls, at the age of fifty, he starred on Broadway in the revue Blackbirds of 1928, where he performed the remarkable “stair dance,” which he’d immortalize on film at 20th Century Fox. His nickname lent a positive image to his character, and his catchphrase "Everything's copacetic," heightened his popularity. Besides Temple, Robinson starred with Lena Horne in Stormy Weather, based on his own life. This film is, along with Cabin in the Sky, the best use of African-American performers on film. It features Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers, Ada Brown and Dooley Wilson. (All of whom were remarkable themselves)
Robinson returned to Broadway in 1939 to play the title role in The Hot Mikado, a jazzy variation of the operetta. Robinson continued to work throughout the 1940s. He co-founded the NY Black Yankees team in Harlem, part of the Negro National League until it was integrated. Robinson died penniless at age 71. Jerry Jeff Walker’s song, “Mr. Bojangles” is misleading, because, for one thing, he never had a dog, and for another, he gave much of his income to support Harlem charities. His funeral was paid for by Ed Sullivan, while the eulogy, broadcast over the radio, was given by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
A park in Harlem is named for Robinson, and his birthday, May 25, has been designated National Tap Dance Day.