In 1940, Collier’s, a popular national magazine, labeled Paul Robeson “America’s No. 1 entertainer.”
The baritone singer and actor whose rendition of “Ol’ Man River” became an American classic, Robeson was a hero of the civil rights movement for his public stands against discrimination.
But in the 1950s Robeson was accused of being a Communist because of his support of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. His refusal to tell the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee whether he was a member of the Communist Party caused a sensation. “Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary,” he said. He did not go to jail but he was blacklisted.
A local chapter of that history came to light last week when Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff, who is teaching a course at the University of Minnesota on civil rights and the black power movement, obtained copies of documents showing that Robeson was barred from performing at the U in 1952.
Local residents seeking a concert venue for Robeson were turned down by the Lyceum theater, the American Federation of Labor’s labor center and the Minneapolis Armory. The Young Progressives of America, a student group, then booked Robeson at the U, but the dean of students canceled it. The group appealed to U President James Morrill.
In Rachleff’s typewritten copy of his statement, Morrill said, “Mr. Robeson is an embittered, anti-American, anti-democratic propagandist. Ostensibly, he would have been brought to the campus as a singer; actually he would be regarded as the clearly identified symbol of Soviet sympathies in this country and abroad.
“I, for one, see no reason why the University should assist Mr. Robeson to raise money, which, when he gets it, supports a program opposed to every democratic principle we are fighting as a nation to preserve.”
The Minneapolis Tribune published an editorial supporting Morrill, saying, “This is not a denial of free speech. It is simply a refusal to be naive and mushy-minded.”
The Minnesota Daily, the ‘U’ newspaper, criticized Morrill’s decision. “We wonder if political views have now become the criteria by which an artist is measured,” it editorialized.
Robeson’s concert was moved to the American House in St. Paul, sponsored by the Progressive Party of Minnesota.
Rachleff, who teaches courses in U.S. labor, immigration and African-American history, is executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul which has an extensive collection of Robeson materials. He says the 1950s was “a period of cultural and intellectual repression” in which some ‘U’ faculty lost their jobs.
Hy Berman, emeritus history professor at the U arrived years after the Robeson cancellation. It was a suppression of free speech, he said. “It was exactly what was going on in universities around the country, keeping Communists or suspected Communists out of the universities as lecturers or even entertainers.”