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Lesson Plans
Paul Robeson: 20th-Century Renaissance Man, Hero In Any Century
Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students

Procedures for Teachers is divided into four sections:
Prep -- Preparing for the Lesson.
Steps -- Conducting the Lesson.
Extensions -- Additional Activities.
Tips -- Managing Resources and Student Activities.


Student Prerequisites:
In preparation for this lesson, students should have a general understanding of: the events and chronology of early 20th century history, particularly the 1920s-1950s; how to locate sites and information online; and word-processing and page-layout fundamentals.

Videotape of "Paul Robeson: Here I Stand" (optional). The two-hour AMERICAN MASTERS documentary premieres on PBS on February 24, 1999. (Check local listings for specific times.) If you are unable to tape the program on its initial airdate or subsequent rebroadcasts, get a copy of the video by contacting:
WNET Video Distribution
P.O. Box 2284
South Burlington, VT 05407-2284
(800) 336-1917.
Corporate funding for AMERICAN MASTERS is provided by Conseco.

Computer Resources:
You will need at least one computer with Internet access to complete this lesson. While many configurations will work, we recommend:

-- Modem: 28.8 Kbps or faster.
-- Browser: Netscape Navigator 3.0 or above or Internet Explorer 3.0 or above.
-- Macintosh computer: System 7.0 or above and at least 16 MB of RAM.
-- IBM-compatible computer: 386 or higher processor with at least 16 MB of RAM, running Windows 3.1. Or, a 486/66 or Pentium with at least 16 MB of RAM, running Windows 95.

Additional Software: Claris Home Page is used as an example in this lesson. You could also use an HTML editor such as BBEdit for the Mac or HotDog for the PC, or, if you are familiar with basic HTML, you could create templates for the pages yourself, using HTML tags in a word-processing program.

PowerPoint, ClarisWorks, and/or Hyperstudio (optional).

For more information, visit What You Need to Get Connected in wNetSchool's Internet Primer.

Background Information:
An internationally famous actor and singer, Paul Robeson was a political activist on behalf of oppressed peoples for nearly fifty years. The son of a runaway slave, Robeson was born in New Jersey in 1898. Robeson was a Renaissance man -- an accomplished scholar, athlete, singer, linguist, and actor. He was a dedicated performer who even researched the Elizabethan pronunciation of words for his role in Shakespeare's "Othello." Robeson was also an ardent advocate of a variety of political and social causes.

At a time when there were few opportunities for people of color in the United States, Robeson vowed to make something of himself. He won an athletic scholarship to Rutgers University, earning letters in track, football, baseball, and basketball. He later attended Columbia University and eventually became a lawyer. At Columbia he met his wife, Eslanda Goode, who became a distinguished anthropologist and writer. She encouraged Robeson to turn his talents toward the theater. His success in plays led him to give up the law, and he went on to perform the title roles in William Shakespeare's "Othello," Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward's "Porgy." Other noteworthy productions include the original Broadway run of "Showboat" and Oscar Micheaux's film, BODY AND SOUL. His acting skills and beautiful voice made him a well-respected actor and concert artist throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His concerts were also among the first to feature -- and popularize -- "Negro spirituals" for a mass audience.

During Hitler's reign in Germany, Paul Robeson became one of the world's most famous anti-Fascists. He became acquainted with socialist ideals through his friend George Bernard Shaw, and became interested in the Soviet Union. While he disagreed with many principles of Communism, he admired the Soviet Union's apparent lack of racial prejudice. He spoke out against the Fascist General Franco in Spain, became a leader in the developing civil rights movement in the United States, and supported the CIO (later part of the AFL-CIO) in its union-organizing efforts. Because of his admiration for many aspects of Soviet culture and society, as well as his publicly stated belief that black Americans should not wage war on behalf of their own oppressors (the U.S. government) against the Soviet Union, his U.S. passport was revoked in 1950. He was blacklisted by the U.S. government (and was continually persecuted by government agencies, including the FBI and CIA) and the entertainment industry. He was unable to perform publicly again until 1957. Robeson, however, remained unembittered and fought for dignity and equality for all people until illness forced him to retire in the mid-1960s.

The following sites should be bookmarked:

  • The Paul Robeson Special Interest Section

    An overview of Paul Robeson's life and achievements. Rutgers University -- Robeson's alma mater -- produces this site and is active in keeping his legacy alive.

  • The Paul Robeson Collection

    A comprehensive biographical site.

  • Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration

    Inspired by the centennial celebration of his birth (April 9, 1898), this site is maintained by the University of Chicago for "studying, teaching, and celebrating Paul Robeson."

  • The Robeson Concerts

    This site details two 1949 Peekskill, NY, concerts in which Paul Robeson performed -- and the volatile public reactions these events incited. Included are detailed stories behind the first and second concerts, as well as editorials and letters to the editor from the local paper.

  • Paul Robeson Biography

    This biographical site includes quotes and information on two Robeson concerts notable for the controversy surrounding them.

  • Remarks by Harry Belafonte about Paul Robeson to the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

    A transcription of Harry Belafonte's remarks about Paul Robeson to the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the brigade's arrival in Spain.

  • August Wilson/Robert Brustein Debate

    Newspaper stories and interviews detailing the debate between theater critic Robert Brustein and playwright August Wilson on African-Americans' roles in drama. The dispute includes some reflections on the play "Paul Robeson" and the man who inspired it.

  • Paul Robeson Stamp Campaign

    This site helps you find out about the campaign to urge the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee to issue a stamp commemorating Paul Robeson and raise "awareness about [his] life, work, and ideas."


    Time Allotment:
    This lesson requires approximately 8-10 class periods.

  • Introduce Paul Robeson as a "20th-century Renaissance man." Have students research the life of Paul Robeson, using library resources and the Web sites listed on the Student Pathway, in Organizers for Students.

    Homework Assignment: Have students write a one-page biographical essay entitled "Paul Robeson -- Renaissance Man."

  • View the American Masters two-hour documentary PAUL ROBESON: HERE I STAND in class (optional).

  • Now that students have a basic familiarity with Paul Robeson's life and accomplishments, divide the class into collaborative groups. Have each group select a theme in the life and times of Paul Robeson to explore in more detail. Some suggested themes include: Paul Robeson the actor, Paul Robeson the singer, Paul Robeson the linguist, Paul Robeson the unionist, Paul Robeson the Communist sympathizer, etc. Student groups could also look at Robeson's activities within the social and political context of different decades, i.e., Paul Robeson in the 1920s, Paul Robeson in the 1930s.

  • Student groups can demonstrate their examination of Paul Robeson's life by creating a multimedia presentation, a dramatic or musical re-enactment, or a Robeson print magazine. Before starting their research and projects, students must complete the Focus Sheet, in Organizers for Students. All themes and projects should be approved by the teacher before students proceed. If students choose to create multimedia presentations, direct them to the following software overviews for guidance in using the programs:

  • PowerPoint Overview

  • ClarisWorks Slide Show Overview

  • HyperStudio Overview

  • Have the class brainstorm about the characteristics of a hero. List these on a board or chart. Have the class form one definition of a "hero." Reflect upon whether Robeson is a hero based on these mutually-agreed-upon criteria. (You may choose to have students complete a writing assignment: "Paul Robeson is/is not a hero, because...")

  • Heroes don't have to be famous. Have students think about a person in their community with the heroic qualities they've identified. This person can be a family member, teacher, religious/political leader, peer, etc.

    Prepare students to interview their local hero. You might assign students to read biographical pieces in magazines (about people who are living and who were interviewed by the article's author.) Ask the class the following:

    What makes a biography interesting? What kinds of information would you want to include in a biography? What kinds of questions would you want to ask? What kinds of questions solicit the best information?

    Discuss the benefits of open- and closed-ended questions. Students can practice their interviewing skills by interviewing each other.

  • Have students create interview questions to ask their local hero. Ask students to contact their local hero and ask to set up a short interview, either in person or over the phone. After the interview, students should write a biographical article about their hero. Students can peer-edit each others' biographies.

  • If your school has a Web site, students should publish their articles on the Web. Select some of the biographies of Paul Robeson and other presentation materials for publication. Make sure to get permission from the local heroes before publishing the biographies on the Web. If your students need help in creating Web pages, review the Claris Home Page Overview, in Organizers for Students. The software helps you build your own simple Web pages.

    Encourage students to examine what traits or characteristics the heroes have in common. What qualities, if any, do the local heroes share with Paul Robeson? After learning more about the local heroes, do the students still think that they have the qualities of a hero defined earlier in the lesson? Should the class's original definition be amended?


    As 1998 was Paul Robeson's centennial, the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee submitted nearly 90,000 signatures and letters urging that a stamp be issued to commemorate his birth. The request was denied, but the Committee is still pursuing the matter.

    The Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee believes that the stamp would be a fitting tribute to a great African-American leader and hero, and most importantly, it would serve to raise awareness about Paul Robeson's life, work, and ideas. To join the campaign -- or just learn more about it -- visit the Paul Robeson Centennial Stamp Campaign page at:

    Students can also investigate whether Robeson performed or was politically active in their town. By visiting the University of Chicago's Robeson History in Your City pages, at:, students can find out how to "Build a Timeline for Paul Robeson's Involvement in Your City."

    Additional Teacher Curriculum Resources:
    SPEAK OF ME AS I AM: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PAUL ROBESON, video and teacher's guide. Available for purchase from NJN Public Television (New Jersey Public Television) at (609) 777-5000.

    Additional lesson plans, syllabi, and curriculum ideas about Paul Robeson can be found at:

    Educator Carol Friedman's excellent 8th grade lesson introducing students to Paul Robeson can be found at:
    You may also wish to purchase "Paul Robeson 1898-1976." This Detroit public school curriculum -- written for grades 4-12 -- is an 82-page chronicle and curriculum resource developed in 1978. It includes personal narratives and anecdotal salutes by well-known figures. Resources include suggestions for secondary level classroom activities, a bibliography, puzzles, a debate format, a brief skit, and a listening-skills study sheet. Information about purchasing this document can be found at:


    One Computer in the Classroom
    If you have access to one computer in your classroom, you can organize your class in several ways. Divide your class into two groups. Instruct one of the groups to do paper research while the second group is working on the computer. Bring in books, encyclopedias, etc., from the library for the group doing paper research. Lead the group working at the computer through an Internet search or allow the students in the class to take turns. (Always have a set of bookmarks ready for the students before they start working on the computer, in order to show them examples of what to look for.) When the groups have finished working, have them switch places.

    If you have a big monitor or projection facilities, you can do Internet research together as a class. Make sure that every student in your class can see the screen, go to the relevant Web site(s), and review the information presented there. You can also select a search engine page and allow your students to suggest the search criteria. Again, bookmark and/or print the pages that you think are helpful for reference later.

    Several Computers in the Classroom
    Divide your class into small groups. Groups can do Internet research using pages you have bookmarked. Group members should take turns navigating the bookmarked sites.

    You can also set the class up so that each computer is dedicated to certain sites. Students will then move around the classroom, getting different information from each station.

    Using a Computer Lab
    A computer center or lab space, with a computer-to-student ratio of one to three, is also appropriate for doing Web-based projects. Generally, when doing Web-based research, it is helpful to put students in groups of three. This way, students can help each other if problems or questions arise. It is often beneficial to bookmark sites for students ahead of time.

    Submit a Comment: We invite your comments and suggestions based on how you used the lesson in your classroom.

    Overview | Procedures for Teachers | Organizers for Students