A distinguished cultural anthropologist in her own right, Eslanda Goode Robeson (1896-1965) is remembered also as the wife and long-time business manager of singer/actor Paul Robeson Sr. Highly educated and cultured, she traveled widely in pursuit of her own career and that of her husband until the couple was effectively grounded by a passport revocation in the mid-1950s. They resumed their travels only after a Supreme Court decision in 1958 upheld the unconstitutionality of the unfounded restrictions.
Robeson was born Eslanda Cardozo Goode in Washington, D.C., on December 15, 1896. Known as "Essie" to her family and friends, Robeson was the youngest of three children and was the only daughter of Eslanda (Cardozo), a one-time schoolteacher, and John J. Goode, a U.S. War Department clerk who died when his daughter was four. Robeson's father was a mixture of Native American, English, and Scotch. Her mother was descended from a wealthy Spanish-Jewish immigrant who, against all social taboos, had boldly married an octoroon (someone of one eighth black ancestry) slave. Thus, although she was a Negro, Robeson was very light-skinned in appearance. After the death of her father, she and her brothers were raised by their mother who brought them to New York where she operated a beauty shop in order to support them. The next move was to Chicago in 1912.
Highly confident and intelligent, Robeson was raised in a cultured environment. She possessed a particularly pleasing singing voice and at the urging of her high school music teacher, Theresa Armitage, took private singing lessons for approximately one year. After graduating from high school at age 16, Robeson enrolled in a domestic science program at the University of Illinois on a full scholarship. She soon lost interest however in both her curriculum and in the school environment and transferred instead to Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. There she undertook a more challenging program in the physical sciences and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry in 1920. According to some accounts, Robeson earned a chemistry degree from the University of Illinois in 1917, although United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files, which were opened on Robeson during the 1940s, suggest that the prior is true.
Married Paul Robeson
She met her future husband, Paul Robeson, in 1920 at Presbyterian Hospital where she had secured a student job in the surgical pathological laboratory. Also a student at Columbia, Paul Robeson was enrolled in the law school and was hospitalized with a football injury when they met. The two were married on August 17, 1921, and she continued to work at the hospital until 1925. In 1920, largely at his wife's insistence, Paul Robeson accepted the title role in a Harlem YMCA production of Simon the Cyrenian. He later appeared in Taboo and performed in London when the play went on the road in 1922. In the years immediately following her marriage, Robeson's life revolved largely around her husband's career when, after completing his law degree and working briefly at the law firm of a friend, he turned permanently to a career in performance as both an actor and a singer. Robeson then assumed the role of his manager and handled the family finances. When her husband gained international renown, she followed him in his travels across Europe.
Due to complications from appendix surgery, Robeson had been unable to travel with her husband on his first trip to England in 1922, but she accompanied him in 1925 when he returned to star in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones. The couple set up housekeeping in Chelsea, and after the play closed in early October they moved to Villefranchesur-Mer at the foot of the Alps and remained there until December of that year. Robeson was deeply in love with her husband at that time and was happy with her life in general. She later wrote in Paul Robeson, Negro of the small French Riviera town where they lived on Cap Ferrat, calling it, "One of the most beautiful harbors in the world." Likewise of her singer-husband she wrote, "I've married the most beautiful Voice I've ever heard."
Upon her return to the United States, she felt an urgent desire to conceive and bear a child, although her husband remained ambivalent to the notion of parenting, citing her past frail health as the reason for his reluctance. Robeson's determination prevailed, and she became pregnant. Their son and only child, Paul Robeson Jr., was born in New York City on November 2, 1927. Paul Sr. at the time of the birth was performing in Paris, France. Robeson rejoined him five moths later, in May of 1928, in London. After they settled early on in Hampstead, Robeson sent for her mother and son in the United States to join her and her husband. She remained in England until October of 1929 and returned on December 28, 1931.
In the late 1920s Robeson had begun work on her first published manuscript, which was a biography of her husband. After numerous rewrites, the book entitled Paul Robeson, Negro was published by Harper in 1930. Also in 1930, she starred with her husband in a relatively obscure silent film drama called Borderline. Written and directed by Kenneth MacPherson, the movie presents the story of an adulterous relationship between a black woman Adah, played by Robeson, and a white man named Thorne.
Personal Career Success
Two years later, Robeson informally separated from her husband. She enrolled in graduate school at London University from 1933 to 1935, specializing in anthropology with a focus on the colonized black people of the world, who were commonly called Negroes in the context of the times. She graduated in 1937 from the London School of Economics.
During these years as a student in England, she made her first trip to Africa, in 1936, in realization of a life-long dream, but only after considerable difficulty in obtaining a visa. Such a visa clearance to Africa, as she learned in the process, was rarely given to a Negro. Despite bureaucratic obstacles, she obtained the necessary papers after citing her academic curriculum as the purpose behind her visit. Accompanied by her young son, then eight years old, she embarked on a three-month junket, with an itinerary extending from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo. In her second full-length writing, African Journey, published by Day in 1945, she provided a diary-formatted chronicle of the 1936 excursion. Among her observations in the book, Robeson reported on the superior political awareness that she perceived among black Africans in comparison to black Americans. The book went into a second printing soon after publication, and Greenwood Press reprinted the volume in 1972.
After anthropological visits to Costa Rica and Honduras in 1940, the Robesons moved from New York City to Enfield, Connecticut, where they purchased an estate, called The Beeches, in 1941. In Enfield, they were the only family of color in the entire town, with the exception of migrant tobacco farmers. Paul Jr. was sent to high school in Springfield, Massachusetts.
World War II
Always socially aware, Robeson's community involvement accelerated during the years of World War II. She was heard widely in her lectures on race relations and worked professionally with Pearl Buck. In 1949 the two co-authored a book, An American Argument, published by Day. Also during the 1940s Robeson enrolled at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut where she earned a Ph.D. in 1945.
With her marriage seriously fractured by 1945 she remained active on other fronts. Working from her home base in Enfield, she maintained a high visibility through community involvement, participating in the Red Cross Motor Corps and keeping active as a writer. She held a seat on the staff of the Council of African Affairs (CAA) and traveled to San Francisco in the capacity of CAA observer to the formation of the Untied Nations. She made a visit to India during which she struck up a friendship with the Indian National Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. After her return she maintained a friendship with him by mail and later entertained his nieces, the Pandit sisters, in her Enfield home when they attended college at Harvard's Wellesley College.
Robeson returned to Africa in 1946, where she visited the Congo, French Equatorial Africa, and Ruanda-Burundi (now Rwanda). During this visit she noted a growing sympathy for socialism among black Africans. Robeson had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 while on tour with her husband, and both of her brothers had emigrated from the United States and lived there for many years. Yet she had come to regard that nation with skepticism, in part based on feedback from her brothers.
Persecution under McCarthyism
Political sympathies notwithstanding, during the 1950s, Robeson and her husband were caught up in the phenomenon known as McCarthyism, by which a large number of Americans—many of them prominent entertainers—were investigated by the U.S. government and placed under suspicion of conducting un-American activities. Many of these individuals were blacklisted in their professions and had their careers ruined, including Paul Robeson.
The FBI opened a file on the Robesons in the early 1940s. On July 7, 1953, Robeson was subpoened by the United States Senate and asked if she was a member of the Communist Party. Although she was known to subscribe to the Daily Worker, she had never held party membership. Regardless she refused to give testimony, citing her Constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment. She offered instead unsolicited statements and accused the Senate committee of pursuing a racially biased agenda. "I am Negro, and this is a very white committee …" she said, as quoted in Contemporary Black Biography. Her passport was revoked as was her husband's, but the pair made use of the confinement, which lasted until 1958, and joined the vanguard of the growing U.S. civil rights movement.
Without a passport, Robeson was nonetheless able to participate with a group from the United Nations that traveled to Trinidad in the spring of 1958. The trip, in conjunction with a celebration of the independence of the British West Indies, was for anthropological purposes. Robeson joined the tour in the capacity of correspondent for the New World Review. In the course of the two-week trip, which lasted from April 17 through April 30, she lectured on race relations in Africa and the United States and also visited Port-au-Prince and Jamaica.
Her passport was restored only as a result of a Supreme Court decision of June 16, 1958, prohibiting the FBI from revoking passports by reason of a person's Communist Party affiliations. Less than one month later, having secured the return of their passports, Robeson and her husband departed for Europe on July 10, 1958, with plans to live in London. They continued on to the Soviet Union, and from there she made a third trip to Africa, to attend a conference in Ghana, which had recently attained independence.
Robeson remained in the Soviet Union until 1963. At that time, suffering from breast cancer, she returned with her husband to the United States, stopping en route to East Germany where she was honored with the German Peace Medal and the Clara Zetkin Medal. She died at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City on December 13, 1965.
Robeson's avocations included many sports, among them basketball, swimming, and bowling. She was also a talented photographer, and her pictures—in particular from her African travels—were very well received by the public.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 13, Gale Research, 1996.
Robeson, Eslanda Goode, Paul Robeson, Negro, Harper & Brothers, 1930.
Department of Justice, "Federal Bureau of Investigation File: Paul and Eslanda Robeson," 1940-60.