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Treatment Focus: Preserving the legacy of Paul Robeson

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    • Robeson USO tour photograph
    • Robeson Othello poster
    • Conservation Technician Amber Hares mending a pamphlet
    • Conservation Technician Amber Hares surface cleaning a pamphlet cover with grated eraser
    • Robeson materials soaking in a bath

When Paul Robeson (1898-1976) began acting in the mid-1920s, he was one of the first black men to play roles in an overwhelmingly white theater industry.  Faced with this obstacle, he nonetheless quickly established himself as an acclaimed performer (his “Othello” ran on Broadway for almost 300 performances), as well as a film actor and singer.  Robeson felt that celebrities should use their status to promote human rights causes, and in keeping with this belief, he performed benefit concerts all over the world and spoke out against racism in America, even before the civil rights movement had begun.

While Robeson’s talent and activism earned him many admirers, it also made him enemies who worked to negate his accomplishments.  During the 1940s, Senator Joseph McCarthy decided that Robeson’s activist efforts (along with his support of socialism and the Soviet Union) were a threat to American democracy and began a long campaign to silence and discredit him.  In 1950, Robeson’s passport was revoked for eight years, preventing him from traveling abroad to perform.  This interruption to Robeson’s career, combined with the damage to his reputation, proved detrimental.  Realizing his career could not recover, Robeson spent the end of his life in seclusion in Philadelphia.

Click here to read more about Robeson and the conservation of his letters, books, and play and concert memorabilia from the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of Temple University Libraries.