paul robeson jr

A Tribute to the Legendary Ruby Dee

Photo: Ruby Dee, 1962 Sept. 25. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress. 

When I think about how the African American experience shapes the American character, I easily think of the brilliant life and career of Ruby Dee. We lost her, at age 91, late Wednesday night, creating a heart-breaking vacuum because she gave us so many lessons as an actress and social activist.

Yes, she had a long life. Yet it seems incredible that this petite, determined woman worked in so many arenas covering seven decades. In the theater and on film, she brought to life, the words of Lorraine Hansberry, Athol Fugard, William Shakespeare, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou and Ossie Davis, her husband, an unforgettable actor and activist, of 56 years.

We are grateful that she was recognized by many during her lifetime. Who can forget “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Buck and the Preacher” and “Do The Right Thing.” As an entertainment pioneer, she made history and helped move history forward. Never one on the sidelines, Dee stood up for, and befriended, Paul Robeson, Martin L. King, Jr. and Malcolm X. She emceed the landmark March on Washington in 1963 and bravely fought for equality in all aspects of American life.

NMAAHC video brochure narrated by Ruby Dee. 

It was only natural that Dee became a champion of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and agreed to narrate our video brochure. She knew the importance of history, as a witness and participant, and she understood our mission to pass on all aspects of our story to future generations.

In her melodic enunciation, she spoke of “the black past is a wonderful but unforgiving mirror.” She preached about the challenge to always “fight the good fight.”

In addition to her flawless acting, her grace, insight and courage are the gifts she leaves us. We will always have her voice urging us to treat everyone right, and not be left out of the American story.

Written by Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

HERStory Matters: Anthropologist, chemist, author, actor and civil rights activist Eslanda Goode Robeson was born on December 15, 1895.

Eslanda Cardozo Goode was born in Washington, DC. Her paternal great-grandfather was a Sephardic Jew whose family was expelled from Spain in the 17th century.Her grandfather was Francis Lewis Cardozo, the first Black treasurer of South Carolina. Her father, John Goode, was a law clerk in the War Department who later finished his law degree at Howard University. Eslanda had two older brothers, John Jr. and Francis. She attended the University of Illinois and later graduated from Columbia University in New York with a B. S. degree in chemistry. When then she started to work at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, she soon became the head histological chemist of Surgical Pathology, the first Black to hold such a position.

In 1920, Paul Robeson and Eslanda attended summer school at Columbia. One year later they married. Eslanda gave up her intentions to study medicine and supported her husband as his business manager. Eslanda worked at the hospital until 1925, when the career of her husband took more and more of her time. She spent time between Harlem, London and France in the following years.

The only child of the Robesons, Paul Jr, “Pauli” was born on November 2, 1927; Robeson was on a tour in Europe at that time. The marriage was strained and Eslanda suffered under the affairs of her husband. Robeson’s long-term liaison with Yolanda Jackson almost broke up the marriage, and Eslanda even agreed to a divorce at a time. Yet, despite all the setbacks and separations, the marriage endured as each of the two had needs that only the other could fill. Eslanda chose to “rise above Paul’s affairs,” but to stay married to him and pursue her own career.

In 1930, Eslanda published her first book, a biography of her husband: “Paul Robeson, Negro.” In 1931, the couple were living in London and became more estranged. Eslanda resumed her own career, taking acting parts in three movies over the next couple of years. She enrolled at the London School of Economics for anthropology and graduated in 1937. In England, she learned more about Africa. She made the first of three journeys to the continent, touring South and East Africa with her son in 1936.

With the signs of war imminent in Europe, the Robesons moved back to Harlem in 1938. Three years later, they moved to Enfield, Connecticut, to their estate, “The Beeches.” Eslanda earned her Ph.D. at the Hartford Seminary in 1946. Using her diary notes of her Africa trip, she completed her second book, “African Journey,” the same year. The book was unusual, as few books in those days dealt with Africa in the first place, and her perspective, as an African American woman, on women in black Africa was unique. The book’s publication was endorsed by Pearl Buck, whose husband was the head of the John Day publishing house. The book argued that Blacks should take pride in their African heritage.

Buck and Eslanda continued to work together. As a result, “American Argument” was published in 1949, a book of dialogues and comments, edited by Buck, in which Eslanda spoke on society, politics, gender roles, and race relations.

With the development of the cold war, the life of the Robesons changed dramatically. The couple had first visited the Soviet Union in 1934, were impressed by the apparent absence of racism, and agreed with the stance of communism against racism, colonization, and imperialism.With their pro-Soviet views, both became targets during the McCarthy days. Robeson’s career came to a standstill, their income dropped dramatically, and the Connecticut estate had to be sold.

On July 17, 1953. Eslanda, like her husband, was called to testify before the US Senate. Asked if she was a communist, she took the Fifth Amendment and challenged the legitimacy of the proceedings. Her passport was revoked until the decision was overturned in 1958. Fighting for the decolonization of Africa and Asia she continued to work for the Council on African Affairs and to write as the UN correspondent for the New World Review, a pro-Soviet magazine.

Once their passports had been returned, they flew to London and the Soviet Union. Eslanda made her third and final trip to Africa, attending the first postcolonial All-African Peoples’ Conference in Ghana in 1958. In 1963, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned from Russia to the US and died in New York in December 1965.

A book about her life, “Eslanda,” was published in 2012. Get your copy at http://amzn.to/1T0CMne.

If you have a family gathering and a distant cousin comes who has been kept out of the family for a long time, it’s a little uncomfortable. Let’s beat the discomfort. It’s worth it.
—  Paul Robeson, Jr.