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Identifier: R-MC 011

Paul Robeson Collection


  • 1916-2006

Scope and Content Note

The Paul Robeson Collection consists of documents ranging in date from 1916 to 2006 . It is housed in 9 letter sized manuscript boxes, 3 phonograph record boxes, and a cassette box.

There is a broad representation of formats in the collection including newspaper clippings, published articles, books, sound recordings, letters, photographic prints and negatives, biographical material, pamphlets and programs, press releases, bibliographies, and other writings and printed ephemera. The collection documents a broad spectrum of Robeson's life and career, however it is by no means complete or comprehensive nor does it represent his personal papers. Several areas of the collection are quite strong particularly those series that deal with news reporting and academic writing on Robeson. The newspaper clippings, Series I, offer a comprehensive chronological documentation of Robeson's life, beginning with his years as an undegraduate at Rutgers College running through his prolific performances and his political activism and exile. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the collection is the material related to Paul Robeson and Rutgers University. This documentation is dispersed throughout the collection, to be sure, but it is also focused most strongly in the Series II/Subseries B (Targum clippings), the Photograph Series IV, and Series VI: Tributes/Memorials/Exhibitions. Finally, Robeson's career on stage and screen is very well documented in the Photograph series and Series V. Plays and Performances which include photographs, programs, and reviews.


9 manuscript boxes (3 phonograph record boxes, 1 cassette box)

Language of Materials


Provenance Note

The Paul Robeson Collection is an artificial research collection culled from the larger University Archives collections, donations and gifts, purchases, and the products of research by the University Archives staff. The University Archives considers this an ongoing/open collection—additions are made regularly.

Of particular note are the documents that form the State Department Series. Formerly Ac. 2707, the State Department series (Series V) comprises "documents relating to the communist-oriented activities of Paul Robeson '19. Washington, D.C. etc., 1946-62" and are copies of the Paul Robeson files that were compiled by the U.S. Department of State.


Paul Robeson was an American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, and civil rights activist. This collection comprises of material gathered together to document the career of one of Rutgers most famous and influential alumnus. It spans the years 1916 to 1998 and includes newspaper clippings, published articles, books, sound recordings, correspondence, photographs and negatives, bibliographies, and writings.

Biographical Sketch of Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson was born April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest son of the Rev. William D. Robeson, who was born a slave. Robeson's mother was a teacher and died when he was five. Robeson entered Rutgers University on a scholarship in 1915 earned with high grades from Somerville High School. The third black student at Rutgers and the first black football player at the school, Robeson became a 12-letter athlete (including Baseball, Basketball, Track, and Football) and a collegiate football All-American. Also earning academic and oratorical honors at Rutgers, Robeson was named a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and graduated with honors in the class of 1919, where he delivered one of the graduation speeches at commencement. He participated in singing at local events while at Rutgers, and he expressed concern for his race and called for cooperation between whites and blacks during this same period. In addition to his athletic activities, Robeson was also active in student clubs such as the Glee Club, Philoclean Society, and Cap and Skull.

Robeson studied law at Columbia Law School and received his LL.B. in 1923. During this time he was married, introduced to the theater, and made his first New York stage appearance (1922). Choosing acting over the practice of law, he starred in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924, creating the role. The racial subject matter of the play spurred controversy and protest. The same year he starred in O'Neill's Emperor Jones on Broadway and appeared in his first film, Body and Soul, by the independent black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux.

Writing in 1929 about his accomplishments, Robeson noted that he was the "first Negro to give program(s) of all-Negro music on (the) regular concert stage. First concert (was in) New York, 1925, and since (have) sung concerts in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Paris, Holland, London, and all of England with enormous success." Robeson viewed his singing as enabling America to see African Americans in a new light, and he felt that hearing the Negro spirituals would promote racial understanding (Box 1, scrapbook 1). He became interested in the folk music of many countries.

Robeson succeeded on the stage, in film, and in concert halls, but experienced prejudice and racism. After finding a tolerant atmosphere in the Soviet Union, he became friendly with American communists and became an activist for blacks' rights. He was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, and the State Department denied him a passport until 1958 as a result. These events reflected the political climate and caused the end of his performing career in the U.S. After residing in England for five years, he returned to the United States where he lived out his last years in privacy, declining to attend belated public tributes. Paul Robeson died at age 77 in Philadelphia.

Arrangement Note

The Paul Robeson Collection is arranged into the following nine series:

  1. I. Newspaper Clippings, 1916-2004
  2. II. Writings by and about Robeson, 1917-2006
  3. III. Correspondence
  4. IV. Photographs
  5. V. Plays and Performances
  6. VI. Tributes/Memorials/Exhibitions
  7. VII. Books and Journals
  8. VIII. Sound Recordings
  9. IX. State Department Documents
  10. X. Rutgers Related
Guide to the Paul Robeson Collection, 1916-2006 R-MC 011
Edited Full Draft
Erika Gorder, Anthony Fatovic, and Jaclyn Fanelli
July 2006
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English.

Revision Statements

  • August 2008: Container list revised to reflect changes to collection

Part of the Rutgers University Archives Repository

Rutgers University Libraries
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
169 College Avenue
New Brunswick NJ 08901-1163
732-932-7012 (Fax)