Today we celebrate Paul Robeson’s birthday. Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey.
In sports, Robeson is best known as a 2-time football All-American at Rutgers, where he eventually won twelve varsity letters.
But few people realize that Robeson also played basketball, and it may have been his best sport.
At 6 feet, 2 inches, Robeson was physically huge by compared to his peers, earning him the nickname “Tiny.” As a power forward, Robeson helped the St. Christopher Club of Harlem, an African American team, win 3 Colored Basketball World’s Championships, including the 1919 title while attending law school at Columbia University.
Robeson joined the “St. C’s” in 1916 while a sophomore at Rutgers.
He later played for the Commonwealth Big Five, the first fully professional all-black basketball team. The Commonwealth team, based in Harlem, was owned by white sports promoters Ed and Jess McMahon who were well loved by African Americans due to their racially inclusive business practices. The McMahons were ancestors of World Wrestling Entertainment czar Vince McMahon.
Robeson, who practiced law briefly, also played two seasons of pro football including one year in the early National Football League before becoming a world renowned Broadway and film actor, recording artist, concert performer, radio star, human and labor rights activist, cultural promoter, author, and goodwill ambassador.
If he were alive today, Robeson would probably have his own reality television show.
In 2004 the United States Post Office introduced a Paul Robeson commemorative stamp.
The stamp unveiling was staged at Princeton University, a fitting gesture since that college summarily refused admission to African Americans until 1942, including Robeson, despite his exceptional academic and athletic qualifications, and despite the fact he was born across the street from the school.
Beyond the many accolades he received throughout his life, the St. Christopher Club was perhaps Robeson’s most cherished experience. He would later say, “of all these activities the closest to my heart remains the St. C.”
Robeson would have been 110 years old today.