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The inheritor of his father’s political mantle

Dr Hywel Francis, founding chair of the Paul Robeson Wales Trust, pays tribute to the lasting legacy of Paul Robeson Jr

have known Paul Robeson Jr for nearly 40 years. It was with great sadness that I received the news from Paul Robeson Jr’s wife Marilyn at the weekend that he had died in Jersey City, US, aged 86.

The son of the great singer and black civil rights and peace champion Paul Robeson, Robeson Jr was very proud of his father’s lifelong campaigning for progressive and cultural causes, including his links with Wales and especially the south Wales miners.

A qualified electrical engineer, writer, lecturer and Russian translator, he wrote the definitive two-volume biography The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, published in 2001 and again in 2010. 

He spent much of his adult life working to preserve his father’s proud legacy by establishing such bodies as the Paul Robeson Foundation and the Paul Robeson Archive.

I organised several British lecture tours for Robeson Jr over a 20-year period. In that time, we worked together with Beverley Humphreys to establish the Paul Robeson Wales Trust and organised a major travelling exhibition Let Paul Robeson Sing which was funded by the Welsh and British governments and designed by Phil Cope. 

The exhibition told the life story of Robeson, the son of an escaped Afro-American slave, who became a lawyer and world singing and acting star of stage and screen.

Robeson Jr shared his father’s long association with the south Wales miners. Paul Sr sang at the memorial to the Welshmen who died defending democracy in the Spanish civil war and identified with the plight of unemployed Welsh mining communities in the 1930s.

In turn the south Wales miners’ union supported him in the post-war period when he was persecuted by McCarthyism in the US when he was prevented from travelling abroad. 

It was his son who arranged a transatlantic telephone link to the miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl in 1957 so that his father could sing directly to the gathering, having been denied the opportunity to travel.

Robeson Jr invited the Onllwyn Male Voice Choir to sing at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1998 at his father’s centenary concert. He became a vice-president of the choir. 

In 2008 he spoke at the National Assembly’s Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay on the 60th anniversary of Aneurin Bevan’s NHS.

Also in 2008 he was awarded an honorary fellowship of Swansea University in recognition of his work in maintaining the cultural, educational and progressive links between Wales and the US.

I was especially pleased that he took a keen interest in school children in my Aberavon constituency, explaining as he did the importance of racial equality to them. 

On two memorable occasions he addressed groups of children at the Civic Centre in Port Talbot and visited Crymlyn Burrows Primary School.

His daughter represented his family at the Ebbw Vale National Eisteddfod in 2010. Her grandfather had attended the Eisteddfod there in 1958.

Paul Robeson Jr’s funeral will take place in Harlem tomorrow.

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