Why is Robeson important to Albany history?
In 1947 Robeson was at the center of a great political and legal battle that took place in Albany – watched by all of America and the world. He was booked to sing in the auditorium of Philip Livingston Jr. High in Arbor Hill by a black cultural organization in the city. (Livingston was often a venue for large concerts and theatrical productions.. it had a big auditorium and parking space.)
Robeson had previously been questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (under Senator Joe McCarthy) as being a potential communist. The Albany School Board, appointed by Mayor Erastus Corning (and at the direction of the Mayor) said Robeson could not use the school venue because Robeson was a communist. A huge political crisis ensued.
Local attorney Arthur Harvey, known for his civil rights work for decades , took the Board to court. (Much of the legal expense was funded by the local unions.)
A decision was rendered in favor of Robeson and the concert took place. (One the few times Mayor Corning lost a fight.)
It’s a story that has been lost to time, but as relevant today as it was 70 plus years ago.
Robeson was an amazing man – an athlete and a lawyer, turned actor and singer – who began to stand up for civil rights and against fascism before it was fashionable. If you would like to know more about him, click here for a summary of his life prepared by the New York Public Library. http://archives.nypl.org/scm/20649
And if you can wait, there’s a Robeson biopic in the works with Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) collaborating with Harry Belafonte.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor