“It was an unlucky time to be black or red. Paul Robeson was both.”
– Richard Clark
On May 18, 1952, famed singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson stood on the back of a flatbed truck, parked in Peace Arch Park in front of a crowd of 35,000 people, and let his voice carry his message where he could no longer go: across the international border.
Sixty-five years later, Robeson’s concert remains the most interesting musical event you’ve probably never heard of.
It occurred in part because Robeson, a U.S. citizen, was unable to cross the border into Canada. He was not trying to immigrate to Canada, he merely wished to visit, but the border patrol had been instructed to take any measure necessary to stop him.
Born in 1898, Robeson was the son of an escaped slave. As a young man, he excelled at university in both academics and athletics; he was elected class valedictorian at Rutgers University and graduated in 1923 as a lawyer from Columbia Law School.
While a student, Robeson also began his career as a singer and actor and that career would soon blossom. The Broadway production of Othello, which starred Robeson and actress Uta Hagen, toured internationally. By the mid-1930s, he was world-famous for his roles on stage and film.
Robeson possessed enormous charisma and stage presence, and music lovers to this day are still deeply moved by the man’s rich bass baritone voice.
He was also a socialist who fought for economic and racial equality.
By the late 1940s, his political and activist views and speeches got him into trouble during the McCarthy era. Essentially blacklisted by his own government, Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950, ending his international career.
At home, recording companies would not allow him studio access and they no longer sold recordings he had already made. Robeson found fewer and fewer venues in which he could perform.
In January 1952, he had planned to perform for the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers at their conference in Vancouver. At that time, a passport was not required to cross the border into Canada, so Robeson had accepted the invitation.
The U.S. State Department, on learning of the visit, used legislation originally passed during the war years to prevent Robeson’s Vancouver arrival on the grounds that “during the existence of (a) national emergency” citizens of the U.S. could be stopped from leaving or entering the country.
Federal officials boarded Robeson’s train when it stopped in Blaine, Wash. and prevented his entry into Canada.
However, in Seattle, through a long-distance telephone hookup relayed to the PA system, Robeson did address and sing for the 2,000 strong convention in Vancouver. The telephone communication inspired a motion at the convention that Robeson perform an across-the-border concert at the Peace Arch/Douglas border crossing.
The motion passed unanimously, prompting union leader Harvey Murphy to announce that the RCMP and FBI agents who were present in the audience were also in favour (given the lack of dissenting votes). The joke was met with a roar of laughter from the assembled crowd.
So on a sunny afternoon, May 18, 1952, Paul Robeson stood on the back of a flatbed truck at the Peace Arch accompanied on the piano by Lawrence Brown. Robeson had to remain on the American side, but he performed to an estimated crowd of 30,000 Canadians and about 5,000 Americans – perhaps more.
The performance included labour union songs, spirituals and a performance by Robeson of his signature song Ol’ Man River.
He wrote in his autobiography: “I shall always remember that concert, when 30,000 Canadians came from many miles away to hear me, to demonstrate their friendship and protest all the barriers to cultural exchange.”
The concert event at Peace Arch was repeated annually until 1955.
In 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 split decision in a couple of related cases determined that no citizen could be denied a passport because of their political beliefs. Two weeks later Paul Robeson’s passport was returned to him.
On Jan. 23, 1976, Robeson died in Philadelphia following complications from a stroke. His 12 pallbearers included Harry Belafonte and Fritz Pollard.
Paul MacDonell is information services librarian at Surrey Public Library in Cloverdale.