Paul Robeson's granddaughter at Ebbw Vale eisteddfod

By Neil Prior
BBC News, Wales

Published
image captionPaul Robeson appeared at the 1958 eisteddfod alongside Aneurin Bevan

The more the world is changing, the more it stays the same.

In 1958 Ebbw Vale was hosting the National Eisteddfod, on the site of a disused colliery, amid uncertainty around the town's economic future as pits were closing.

In 2010 Ebbw Vale is hosting the National Eisteddfod on the site of a disused steel works, amid similar concerns about life after the industry.

Then, as now, the events were typified by a defiant optimism, a belief that better times were just around the corner, if the will of the community was strong enough.

In 1958 nobody typified that strength of conviction more than the first man to be granted permission to speak English on the llwyfan (eisteddfod stage), black American actor, singer, lawyer, civil rights campaigner, athlete and all-round Renaissance man, Paul Robeson.

Fifty-two years later, their resolve has again been bolstered by the appearance of a Robeson at their Eisteddfod: this time Paul's granddaughter, Susan.

"I've been so moved by the warmth and generosity I've received from everyone I've met since coming to Wales," she said.

"Everyone wants to shake my hand, or tell me about the time they met my grandfather.

"I knew how important Wales was to him, but I've been so touched to see how important he was to Wales".

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898.

In the late 1920s he moved to Britain. While starring in the West End production of Show Boat, he met a group of south Wales miners who had embarked on a gruelling hunger march to London to highlight the plight of the valleys.

As Sian Williams, curator of the Welsh Miners' Library, explained, it was to prove a meeting which would change his outlook on the world.

"After meeting the south Wales miners he begun to realise that the struggle in Wales was just the same as his, back in America. It wasn't really about race: the battle facing oppressed people was the same, the world over," she said.

"Wales represents just a small fraction of Paul Robeson's international work in confronting injustice, but you could make an argument that it was that revelation with the south Wales miners which started it all."

In the pre-war period he worked tirelessly to publicise the conditions in which Welsh miners worked and lived.

He gave performances as far apart as Neath to Caernarfon, in support of causes as varied as the victims of the 1934 disaster at Gresford Colliery, near Wrexham, to the Welsh casualties of the Spanish civil war.

Support for socialism

His love affair with Wales culminated in 1940, when he starred in, and heavily influenced the script of, Proud Valley, a film telling the story of a black labourer who moves to Rhondda and wins over the hearts of the locals.

The post-war period brought hard times for Paul Robeson.

image captionPaul Robeson had his passport withheld by the US in the 1950s

As the Cold War gathered strength, his outspoken support for socialism, race equality and anti-colonialism, combined with his refusal to denounce Stalin's Russia, sparked a 25-year investigation into him by J Edgar Hoover's FBI, as well as Britain's MI6.

In 1950, at the height of McCarthyism, he had his passport withdrawn for eight years, owing to his alleged un-American activities.

But if anything, this only enhanced his global support, particularly in Wales, where a Let Paul Robeson Sing campaign quickly gathered strength.

Still barred from international travel, Robeson sang Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel? for the 1957 Miners' Eisteddfod in Porthcawl, via a trans-atlantic telephone link from a studio in New York.

"One of my earliest memories is going with my grandfather to a recording studio in New York, and hearing him sing for the miners in Wales, " said Susan Robeson.

"I must only have been four or five, so I didn't really understand anything about the travel ban, but even at the time I remember thinking there was something amazing about the fact that they could stop his body leaving America, but they couldn't contain his voice and spirit."

Ban lifted

The publicity gained by this coup may have played a part in the US Supreme Court's decision, a year later, to overturn the State Department's travel ban.

And so, free again, he appeared in person at Ebbw Vale's eisteddfod in 1958, where he shared the stage with long-term friend Aneurin Bevan, then the MP for the area and the founder of the National Health Service.

Over half a century later, visiting Wales for the first time, his granddaughter is back in Ebbw Vale, as an honorary fellow of Swansea University.

At the eisteddfod she is launching a project by the university, in conjunction with the Paul Robeson Wales Trust and the Welsh assembly, to create an online learning resource in her grandfather's memory.

Opera singer and broadcaster Beverley Humphreys, a trustee of the Paul Robeson Wales Trust, said: "Very much in the spirit of Paul Robeson, we want it to be a two-way resource, and so if anyone has any memories or tributes they'd like to contribute to the site, we'd be delighted to take them."

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