Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey. After the early death of his mother, he was raised by his father, a preacher and escaped slave, who impressed upon him the need for self-improvement through education. Taking this to heart, he won a scholarship to Rutgers University where he excelled in both academics and sports (he made All-American in American Football), and went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University. He was in the same law school class as William O. Douglas. He quit the legal profession after a secretary refused to take dictation from a Black man.
It was as an actor and singer that Robeson found fame, including acclaimed performances in Emperor Jones, Porgy and Bess and, in 1930, as Othello in England, when no US company would employ him for the role. He reprised the role in New York in 1943. At the time the Broadway run of Othello was the longest Broadway run of any Shakespeare play. He won the Spingarn Medal in 1945 for his performance. Uta Hagen played Desdemona, and José Ferrer played Iago. Robeson's repertoire of African-American folk songs helped bring these to much wider attention both inside the US and abroad - in particular his stunning rendition of "Go Down Moses".
On his frequent trips overseas he was highly critical of the conditions experienced by black Americans, especially in the segregated southern states, and this outspokenness, together with sympathies expressed towards the people of the Soviet Union (which largely stemmed from his belief that the African-American slaves shared a common bond with the pre-revolutionary serfs of Russia) found him branded a communist by the McCarthyiteite HUAC committee, and the US State Department denied him a passport. Undeterred, he still occasionally sang overseas, including a performance at the Welsh National Eisteddfod conducted over the telephone.
In 1949, Robeson gave a concert in Peekskill, New York. After the concert, organized anti-communist and racist vigilantes attacked departing concertgoers, while local police stood by and did nothing. The local newspaper was accused of encouraging the attacks.
Prior to his passport's return in 1958, Robeson wrote a book, Here I Stand, which eloquently makes an impassioned case for concerted action to right the inequities of the Jim Crow system. After he got back his passport he spent five years touring the world, playing Othello again at Stratford-upon-Avon, and singing throughout Europe and in Australia and New Zealand. His health broke down and he spent time in Russia and East Germany in hospitals. The remainder of his life was plagued by ill health and depression, and his appearances were relatively few. His 75th birthday was celebrated in Carnegie Hall where a taped message from him was played.
Paul Robeson died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1976 where he had been living with his sister. He was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. His wife Essie Cardozo Goode (who was related to Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo) preceded him in death.
Although Robeson is one of the "Great Forerunners" in Black equality, the McCarthy era virtually erased his memory from the consciousness of younger Americans. He was a brilliant, indominatable man who was conversant in over 20 languages, and at one time carried enough clout to be considered for a vice presidential spot on Henry A. Wallace's 1948 ticket. His singing voice was a sonorous bass-baritone once described thus: "If God should come to earth and sing, He would sound something like Paul Robeson."