Photos by Nazmul Miah
American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson
paid many visits to the south Wales valleys.
BBC Wales South East
Paul Robeson (1898 to 1976) was born in Princeton, New Jersey and was the son of a slave, William Drew Robeson, who ran away from a North Carolina cotton plantation in 1860 at the age of 15. Paul went on to become a college an Afro-American actor of film and stage with a truly remarkable singing voice, a baritone voice of great beauty and depth; he was an All-American and professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator and a lawyer. Robeson became a lifelong political activist, campaigning to end lynching, he fought for workers rights, against colonialism in places such as India, Africa and the Caribbean and for socialist causes. He spoke at rallies, conferences etc and gave performances in support of and to raise money for a wide range of causes- including striking miners in Wales.
He lived in Britain during the 1930s, and again for a while in the 1950s, meeting many African students here who were later to become leaders of their countries. His visits to and campaigning for Wales is still remembered, he performed concerts at Aberdare and Mountain Ash. and as recently as 2001 an exhibition about him was mounted in Cardiff, and in 2003 the National Library of Wales did a special exhibition on him.
Robeson’s association with South Wales dates from 1928 when, whilst performing in ‘Show Boat’ in London’s West End, he met a group of unemployed miners who had walked to London to draw attention to the hardship and suffering endured by thousands of unemployed miners and their families in South Wales.
Robeson visited South Wales many times between 1929 and 1939, singing in various towns including Cardiff, Neath and Swansea. In 1938, he sang to the 7,000 people who attended the Welsh International Brigades Memorial at Mountain Ash to commemorate the 33 Welshmen who had died in Spain. He told the audience “I am here because I know that these fellows fought not only for me but for the whole world. I feel it is my duty to be here."
Paul Robeson captured the sympathy of the miners of Wales when he sang in Jack Jones 1939 film Proud Valley with Rachel Thomas, as the character David Goliath.
At a reception given in his honour by the South Wales Area NUM in 1958, he told the audience, “You have shaped my life – I have learnt 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.”
Every year between 1952 and 1957, Robeson was invited to sing at the Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl but he was unable to travel because his passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958 under the McCarran Act and he was under surveillance by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency and by British MI5 for well over three decades until his death in 1976. In October 1957 however, Robeson was able to participate in the Miners’ Eisteddfod at the Grand pavilion in Porthcawl in 1957. A transatlantic telephone link was established between Paul Robeson, in his own apartment in New York, and the gathered miners and their families in Wales. This was an important gesture of international solidarity with Robeson, a fierce critic of American capitalism and imperialism. It is supremely ironic that the attempts of the Eisenhower Government to silence Robeson, actually achieved the opposite of their objective, and secured his place in history.
The South Wales miners added their voice and signatures to the international petitions that eventually forced the US Supreme Court to reinstate his passport in 1958.
Paul Robeson’s health deteriorated during the 1960s and after his wife’s death in 1965, he stayed out of the public eye. And died in 1976.
Cwmbach Male Choir
This picture of Paul Robeson and Cwmbach Male Choir was taken in 1960
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