— by Kim Davenport
On November 19, 1941, the multi-talented Paul Robeson made his first concert appearance in Tacoma. Although it was his powerful baritone voice that was featured in this particular event, Robeson was famous for a wide variety of talents. As only the third African-American student to be admitted to Rutgers University, in 1915, he would be recognized during his time there as a football All-American, a fine stage actor, singer, and was elected class valedictorian upon his graduation in 1919. Robeson went on to complete his law degree at Columbia University. He then pursued a career on both the theater and concert stages, receiving acclaim for everything from his performances of Shakespeare in London and New York to his recitals featuring African-American spirituals. As he grew older, Robeson would become ever more involved in political and civil rights issues, both in the United States and abroad. His true impact would not be fully recognized until after his death in 1976.
The event that brought Robeson to Tacoma for the first time was the first concert of the Temple Theater’s 1941-42 All-Star Series, which featured Robeson alongside Clara Rockmore, a virtuoso theremin player.
The program featured Ballad for Americans, a patriotic cantata written in 1939 for the Federal Theater Project. Robeson made the work famous through live radio broadcasts and a best-selling 1940 recording, and would go on to perform the popular work frequently on radio and in concert venues around the country throughout the war years.
Adding to the double-treat for Tacoma of hearing two prominent musical artists on the same night, Robeson chose the Lincoln High School choir to accompany him in the performance of Ballad for Americans – a special honor for the high-schoolers, as he typically would have performed the work with a collegiate or professional choir. The images of the concert program shared here were found in the scrapbooks of Margaret Rawson Goheen, longtime choir director at Lincoln.