GRATING THE NUTMEG podcast: PAUL and ESSIE ROBESON In CONNECTICUT
Paul & Essie
The influential Robeson couple moved to Enfield on the road toward peace and justice
From Diana Ross to Meryl Streep, from Paul Newman to 50 Cent, celebrities have long considered Connecticut a safe, comfortable place to settle. It’s a beautiful state– and it’s close to New York City.
But when Paul Robeson and his family moved to Enfield in 1941, they were being surreptitiously followed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The federal government thought Paul was a threat to national security. The world famous actor, singer, and activist was being secretly surveilled by governments at home and abroad, as was his wife Eslanda Goode Robeson, a journalist and anthropologist by trade and a world traveler through much of the African diaspora.
The two spoke out against Jim Crow racism, the rise of fascism, supported anti-colonial movements in Vietnam and South Africa, and warned against the dreaded possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. These hot topics were enough to put Paul and “Essie” on J. Edgar Hoover’s list of subversives.
The couple hoped their years as nutmeggers would provide a quiet refuge with their son Pauli, who attended local public schools. Instead, their twelve years in Enfield from 1941 to 1953 were tumultuous, dangerous times. Responding to death threats, Essie installed a home alarm system and kept a hunting knife beside her bed.
After the move, Paul continued to sing, record, act in movies, and perform on Broadway. In 1945 the Hartford Courant reported his appearance at Bushnell Memorial drew an enthusiastic full house. “Mr.Robeson comes to the stage very much a popular hero,” noted the concert review. “He is a great figure of a man.”
The government kept extensive confidential files on both Robesons. On March 15, 1944, Eslanda spoke at the Hartford YWCA. She urged her audience to recognize racism in America as an “urgent” matter that must be resolved by the majority white population. Black people, she said, were “on the move. This is not a threat, but a statement of fact.”
The event was duly recorded and transmitted to Washington by the New Haven office of the FBI, according to a memo in the Robesons’ files, now declassified and online (nsa.gov, FBIHQ 100-12304).
Eslanda was a “Black feminist and also someone whose politics were very much internationalist,” her biographer Barbara Randsby told radio host Amy Goodman in a 2013 interview. “I think international solidarity was very important [to her] at a time when many people were being penalized for having a global view and thinking in those terms.”
Essie’s life in Enfield was busy. She studied anthropology at the Hartford Seminary. She wrote book reviews, and her own work African Journey appeared on the bestseller list of the city’s bookstores. She gave street corner speeches in Hartford’s north end, calling for a federal anti-lynching law.
Essie became a leader of the Progressive Party in Connecticut, running on the party’s ticket for secretary of state in 1948 and U.S. Congress in 1952. She raised Pauli and stayed active in local town affairs as well.
All the while, the FBI was interviewing her neighbors and secretly checking into the details of her voting status and driver’s license.
“Judge me by the enemies I have made,” said FDR in a 1932 speech found in Roosevelt’s presidential library. Paul Robeson certainly made all the right enemies: he was hounded by the House Un-american Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joe McCarthy’s infamous weapon of political disruption, which was In turn was praised by the Ku Klux Klan (as Gore Vidal recalled in the May, 2008 issue of Esquire magazine).
What may have been the decisive blow to Paul’s popularity came when he gave a 1949 speech in France, as described by Gilbert King in Smithsonian Magazine. The Associated Press wrote that Paul had declared Black people would not defend the United States in a war with Russia.
Was his statement evidence of treason? Or was it a dirty trick? Curiously, the text of his “speech” was transmitted back to the United States before Paul’s talk was given. As Gilbert King wrote: “Robeson’s main point was that World War III was not inevitable, as many Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union.”
Large venue promoters now refused to book the controversial singer. It was left to his supporters to secure schools and union halls for public appearances. In what the Courant called the “greatest mobilization of police in the city’s history,” hundreds of Hartford-area police were on high alert for Paul’s concert on November 15, 1952. Weaver High School–now Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School– was the location.
Anti-Robeson forces raised a ruckus. What infuriated his detractors most was Paul’s refusal to condemn the U.S. Communist Party or confirm his membership. Called before HUAC, Paul was asked: “Why do you not stay in Russia?” The hearing transcript captured his angry reply: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”
Paul’s views made him a ripe target for those who had a stake in the Cold War status quo. His every move made negative headlines at a time when Black people were otherwise largely invisible in the news media. Violent provocateurs attended his concerts, making it impossible for Paul to perform. “The persecution of Paul Robeson by the Government has been one of the most contemptible happenings in modern history,” wrote historian and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois.
The Courant reported that conservative veterans’ groups lined up to oppose the concert, led by Hartford City Council member John J. Mahon. Even the local teachers’ union petitioned the Council and the Board of Education to rescind the Weaver High permit.
Supporting Paul’s appearance was the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. Also backing his right to sing were Hartford mayor Joseph Cronin, Republican City Council member Betty Knox, Board of Education President Lewis Fox, civil rights lawyer George Ritter, and school board member Reverend Robert Moody, Hartford’s first African American elected official. The pro-concert forces prevailed.
In the end, there were no disturbances. Paul performed at Weaver High School to an auditorium packed with 800 people. The audience called him back for six encores.
Soon after they prepared to leave their suburban home. Although they had spent more than a decade in Enfield, the Robesons were on the move again, searching for an elusive peace.