Year
1976

Singer, actor, athlete, activist Paul Robeson dies

The singer, actor, athlete and activist Paul Robeson dies at the age of 79 on January 23, 1976.

Robeson’s physical strength, size and grace made him one of the elite sports figures of his generation, but his stature in other fields—music, theater, politics, human rights— eventually overshadowed his athletic greatness. On stage and screen, his unique voice earned him universal artistic acclaim, but when he raised it in support of Civil Rights and social justice, his voice often aroused violent controversy.

Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, the son of a father born into slavery and a mother raised as a vocal abolitionist. Robeson’s academic and athletic achievements earned him a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, where he became not only a four-sport letterman and two-time All American football star, but a member of Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian—all of this while being only the third African-American student in school history. Robeson moved to Harlem after graduation, where he worked his way through Columbia University Law School as an actor and professional football player. By 1923, Robeson had passed the New York bar and earned critical raves on the London and Broadway stage. The lure of a promising career in law proved less compelling for Robeson than a career in the theater.

Over the next twenty years, Robeson established himself as one of the most important musical and dramatic performers of his day. The role of Joe and the song “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat were written for Robeson’s famous bass voice; Robeson originated the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones; and he became the first African American to play Othello on Broadway. By the late 1940s, Robeson’s international artistic reputation was well established, but it was rivaled by his reputation as a political activist. Racism generally, and the horror of racial lynching particularly, were Robeson’s greatest concerns. If his outspoken views on segregation didn’t win him enough enemies in the United States, his openly leftist leanings certainly did. Robeson traveled repeatedly to the Soviet Union beginning in the 1930s—a history that led to the unconstitutional seizure of his passport and to his blacklisting following an appearance before the Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. When asked during those hearings why he did not simply move to the USSR, Robeson offered a typically powerful response: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you.”

ALSO ON THIS DAY

USS Pueblo captured

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, is engaged in a routine surveillance of the North Korean coast when it is intercepted by North Korean patrol boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore, but ...read more

First woman M.D.

Elizabeth Blackwell is granted a medical degree from Geneva College in New York, becoming the first female to be officially recognized as a physician in U.S. history. Blackwell, born in Bristol, England, came to the United States in her youth and attended the medical faculty of ...read more

Toy company Wham-O produces first Frisbees

On this day in 1957, machines at the Wham-O toy company roll out the first batch of their aerodynamic plastic discs–now known to millions of fans all over the world as Frisbees. The story of the Frisbee began in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where William Frisbie opened the Frisbie ...read more

Soldiers massacre the wrong camp of Indians

Declaring he did not care whether or not it was the rebellious band of Indians he had been searching for, Colonel Eugene Baker orders his men to attack a sleeping camp of peaceful Blackfeet along the Marias River in northern Montana. The previous fall, Malcolm Clarke, an ...read more

Derek Walcott is born

On this day, poet and playwright Derek Walcott is born in St. Lucia, in the Carribbean. Walcott will win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Walcott’s family descended from slaves in the West Indies, and the legacy of slavery is a common theme in his work. Both his parents ...read more

The A-Team debuts on NBC

In the pilot episode of the NBC television series The A-Team, which airs on this day in 1983, the go-getting newspaper reporter Amy Allen (Melinda Culea) seeks the help of a mysterious group of Vietnam-veterans-turned-soldiers-for-hire to find her missing colleague in Mexico. An ...read more

Deadliest earthquake in history rocks China

On this day in 1556, an earthquake in Shaanxi, China, kills an estimated 830,000 people. Counting casualties is often imprecise after large-scale disasters, especially prior to the 20th century, but this disaster is still considered the deadliest of all time. The quake struck in ...read more

Videotaped murder leads to convictions in Texas

Darrell Lunsford, a county constable in Garrison, Texas, is killed after pulling over a traffic violator. His murder was remarkable because it was captured on a camera set up in Lunsford’s patrol vehicle. The videotape evidence led to the conviction of the three men who beat, ...read more

North Korea seizes U.S. ship Pueblo

The U.S. intelligence-gathering ship Pueblo is seized by North Korean naval vessels and charged with spying and violating North Korean territorial waters. Negotiations to free the 83-man crew of the U.S. ship dragged on for nearly a year, damaging the credibility of and ...read more

Hood removed from command

On this day in 1865, Confederate General John Bell Hood is officially removed as commander of the Army of Tennessee. He had requested the removal a few weeks before; the action closed ableak chapter in the history of the Army of Tennessee. A Kentucky native, Hood attended West ...read more

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” debuts

On this day in 2006, “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” a documentary about the aborted attempt by the auto industry to create an electric vehicle, debuts at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The movie posited that there was a conspiracy between oil companies, automakers and the ...read more