English Heritage Unveil A Blue Plaque To Honour Paul Robeson

By David Prudames | 10 October 2002
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Blue Plaques are awarded to those who have gained recognition through their life and work.

Left: Blue Plaques are awarded to those who have gained recognition through their life and work. Photo: William Conran.

An English Heritage Blue Plaque has been unveiled at the former London home of the black singer, actor and pioneering civil rights activist, Paul Robeson.

In celebration of Black History Month, the plaque was unveiled by singer and actress Dame Cleo Laine and 24 Hour Museum Chairman Loyd Grossman, at 1-2 Branch Lane, Hampstead, London where Robeson lived between 1929 and 1930.

Perhaps best known for singing Ol' Man River in the musical Showboat, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) helped put black music and civil rights on the world stage at a time when segregation was still legal in America.

Paul Robeson with Peggy Ashcroft in Othello, 1930

Right: Paul Robeson with Peggy Ashcroft in Othello, 1930.

"I welcome the unveiling of a Blue Plaque honouring Paul Robeson," said his son, Paul Robeson Jr.

"It is an appropriate symbolic recognition of a significant period of my father's artistic and political growth in London. It will remind us all of the deep mutual affection between my father and the peoples of the United Kingdom."

"Paul Robeson's name should be lauded in America and the world, as is Dr Martin Luther King," added Dame Cleo Laine.

Dame Cleo Laine and Loyd Grossman unveil the Blue plaque in Hampstead, north London

Left: Dame Cleo Laine and Loyd Grossman unveil the Blue plaque in Hampstead, north London. Photo: William Conran.

Campaigning against fascism, colonialism and racism, Robeson picketed the White House and started crusades against lynching and segregated concert audiences, laying the foundations for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

He was born in Princeton, USA in 1898, the son of a runaway slave, growing up to become one of the first internationally renowned black performers.

After studying law at Columbia University, he was admitted to the Bar of New York, but left in protest when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.

Robeson's warm, sonorous voice made the song Ol' Man River and the part of Joe in Showboat his very own in 1928.

Right: Robeson's warm, sonorous voice made the song Ol' Man River and the part of Joe in Showboat his very own in 1928.

Constantly fighting prejudice, he played 11 lead roles in feature films, but a lack of heroic parts for black actors led him to leave the screen.

In London in 1930 opposite Peggy Ashcroft, Robeson created one of the definitive interpretations of Othello, which went on to become the longest running Shakespearean production of all time on Broadway.

Anyone interested in Robeson's extraordinary story should check out the exhibition Let Paul Robeson Sing! at the Theatre Museum.

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