“When we first draw breath outside the womb, we inhale tiny particles of all that came before, both literally and figuratively. We are never merely individuals; we are never alone; we are always in the company of other, of the past, of history.”

White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a privileged Son, Tim Wise

Can you think of an athlete with a list of achievements to match the ones below?

  • In college played basketball, football, track and baseball, winning 15 varsity letters for them.
  • Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
  • Played both professional football and baseball.
  • Graduated with a law degree and was the class valedictorian at university
  • Performed as a concert artist in sold out shows around the world and could sing in 25 different languages.
  • Received in London, on one opening night, standing ovations with cheers for twelve encores.
  • Performed in Broadway plays and was a highly acclaimed Shakespearean actor
  • Performed in star roles in Hollywood movies, including a movie about a Welsh mining community called, The Proud Valley.
  • Toured the world speaking on topics advocating civil and human rights, international cooperation and world peace.

Not your average sports athlete but a true world citizen. The person who achieved all of the honours listed above was none other than the African-American athlete – Paul Robeson.


Robeson a young lawyer


Robeson the athlete and sports star

He was born on April 9, 1898 in New Jersey, U S A, one of five children in his family. His father was an escaped slave who through hard work and determination, earned a degree from Lincoln University. His mother was an abolitionist from a strong religious Quaker background. He learned the lessons that prepared him for life, in the harsh times and society that he was born in, from his parents- hard work, respect for all fellow humans and how to use innate talent and ability to achieve success.

He “inhaled the tiny particles of all that came before him”- his parents, his ancestors, who lived in slavery, and expressed them throughout his life.


Paul Robeson protests Jim Crow rules at the Ford Theatre in Baltimore, 1948.

In 1929 Robeson was a world renowned concert artist and actor at the height of his career. He was the star actor, performing in the musical “Show Boat” in London’s West End. One day on his way home after a matinee performance, he heard the sound of male voices singing in perfect harmonisation. He was mesmerized by the quality of the sound so he followed it and made an unexpected discovery. The singers were a group of work men marching in the street, holding aloft protest banners as they sang.

When Robeson was told that they were a group of miners, from the Rhondda Valley, Wales, who were protesting because they were blacklisted after an unsuccessful strike by their union.  And, they had marched all the way from their homes to London, seeking help to regain employment. He, without hesitation, immediately joined the march and sang along with them.

The marching miners, as well as the spectators on the sidewalks were overpowered by Robeson’s reaction. The march continued with the statuesque African American, in his formal theatre attire, the Welsh miners in their work clothes and mining boots, singing in perfect harmony until it reached its destination. Then Robeson capped off his participation with an impromptu performance singing for the crowds that had gathered, spirituals and his famous song “Ole Man River.” He also donated a sum of money to the miners so that they could travel back to Wales by train. And thus his lifelong relationship with Wales and the Welsh miners began.


Paul Robeson with the Cwmbach Male Voice Choir at the Royal Festival Hall in 1960

The relationship grew stronger as Robeson began to make further donations to the Welsh Miners relief fund and visited the men who he had marched with in their home cities giving concerts for them and their families.

Years later, Sian Williams, curator of the Welsh Library Exhibition in honour of Robeson, made the following comment-

“After meeting the South Wales miners he begun to realise that the struggle in Wales was just the same as his back in America. It wasn’t really about race: the battle facing oppressed people was the same, the world over.”

In his many speeches on behalf of civil and human rights, Robeson himself, affirmed the remarks in the Williams statement. Here are a few samples:

“Wales, you know, is a part of England where I first understood the struggle of white and Negro together. When I went down into the coal mines –into the Rhondda Valley – went down to the mines with these workers, – lived among them- later did a picture, as you know, called “Proud Valley”- and I became so close that in Wales today, as I feel here now, they feel me a part of that land.”

 Peace Bridge Arch. August 16, 1953

 “That is how I realized that the fight of my people in America and the fight of oppressed workers everywhere was the same struggle.”

  I, Too, am American – February 27, 1949

 “I had learned, during these years, an important lesson: that the problems of world workers the world over are much the same and that eventually, they must all find similar answers.”

The UAW Should Set the Pace- Freedom, March 1953

 “These things were becoming clear to me when one day in London, in the early Thirties, I went on a picket line to sing for workers in their struggle for better pay and working conditions”

 “I knew I was fighting for my people, the Negro people. Most of them were working people like these English workers, like the Welsh miners I knew so well. I tied all this together. I saw the British aristocracy oppressing white English, Welsh and Scotch workers and African and West Indian seamen, and the whole of my people in these lands.”

 “My songs were the songs of my people- for five years I would sing no others. Later when from my travels I saw the likeness between songs of different peoples, I learned their language and began to sing the folk-songs of the African, the Welsh, the Scotch Hebridean, the Russian, Spanish, Chinese, the Yiddish, Hebrew and others.”

The People of America Are The Power- April 1951

  It is evident from these quotes that Robeson’s travels had a major impact on him personally and influenced his thoughts, on the way of life for people from all parts of the world. He understood that the fight for black people’s liberation in America was a part of the world wide struggle of all people seeking freedom from abuse. And he was determined to do his part to help in the struggle.

Robeson used his star power to draw attention to people’s struggles and also made financial contributions to their causes. In 1934, when he was performing in a concert in Caernarfon, there was explosion in the Gresford Colliery. The fire in the mine killed 266 men. He donated his fees from the concert to the fund set up to help the relatives of the deceased. Throughout the 1930’s he gave a number of concerts and donated his fees to working class causes.


Robeson speaking on human rights.


Robeson the movie star


During the period of 1929-1939, Robeson was a frequent visitor to South Wales, performing in concerts at Cardiff, Swansea and Neath. Every year he was invited to sing at the “Miners Eisteddfod” at Porthcawl but this came to an end in 1957- the US Government had taken away his passport because of his anti-racist speeches and political beliefs. However he was still able to perform because the Miners arranged for him to sing via a transatlantic telephone link at a secret recording studio in New York Studio. There was hardly a dry eye at the concert hall when the audience heard Robeson’s rich bass baritone voice over the loudspeaker singing –

(Chorus of “Land of My Fathers”- Welsh National Anthem)

Wales! Wales! O but my heart is with you!
And long as the sea
Your bulwark shall be,
To Cymru my heart shall be true

The concert ended with the entire audience singing back to Robeson-

We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside
We’ll keep a welcome in the Vales
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales

As a result of international petitions to the US Supreme Court signed by Wales and many other countries, Robeson’s passport was returned to him in 1958. Later that year in a reception given in his honour in Wales, he thanked the audience saying-

“You have shaped my life- I have learned 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.”

Some fifty years later, Susan Robeson, his granddaughter was invited to Ebbw Vale as an honorary fellow of Swansea University. At the “Miners Eisteddfod” she launched a combined project by the University, the Paul Robeson Wales Trust, and the Welsh Assembly that created an online learning resource in her grandfather’s memory. In her remarks she said-

 “I’ve been so moved by the warmth and generosity I’ve received from everyone I’ve met since coming to Wales. Everyone wants to shake my hand, or tell me about the time they met my grandfather. I knew how important Wales was to him, but I’ve been so touched to see how important he was to Wales”.

Robeson was a national hero to the people of Wales.  The words of Hywel Francis, a former MP and a historian, reveal the feelings of the people of Wales towards him –

 “Paul Robeson was a remarkable man. I was brought up to believe that the great heroes of our time were people like Cliff Morgan the rugby player, John Charles the soccer player and people like Paul Robeson.

Despite his great power and fame, he was still prepared to articulate the great causes of humanity – racial equality, workers rights, and the struggle against fascism.”

 Paul Robeson died in America in 1976. He may not have been a hero in his own country but to Wales and many other countries of the world, he was more than a hero and was highly acclaimed for his fight to achieve respect, equality, dignity, and human rights for all humankind.

Paul Robeson was a “man for all seasons”. These lines from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who wrote in his poem “Ode To Paul Robeson” best describe him-


Not only for Negroes,

For the poor Negroes,

But for the poor,



For all people.



Copyright © 2016 Affable Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.



  1. Pingback: Paul Robeson and Wales: A Proud Bond - Cynon Valley Museum Trust

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