Remembering Paul Robeson
MOUNTAIN Ash is staging a special celebration to mark the 80th anniversary of a historic concert featuring African-American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, above.
A VALLEYS community is planning a special celebration to mark the 80th anniversary of a historic concert featuring African-American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.
Let Paul Robeson Sing! will be on display at the Mountain Ash Workingmen’s Club on Friday and Saturday, December 7-8 to commemorate the evening in 1938 when Robeson performed at the Pavilion in the town. The exhibition will move on to Cynon Valley Museum after this weekend’s event.
The concert paid tribute to 33 Welshmen who had died after volunteering to fight with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
Next month’s event, organised by Dr Michael Ward and Eirwen Hopkins from Swansea University, will see 30 pop-up banners detailing Robeson’s life and influence go on display.
Dr Ward, who was born in Mountain Ash, is passionate about celebrating the concert and the community which hosted it.
He said: “Paul Robeson was a uniquely gifted American singer with the most wonderful baritone voice. He was also a qualified lawyer, a scholar, athlete, actor, intellectual, linguist and orator, loved and admired wherever he went and famous across the world.
“Persecuted in America for the colour of his skin and for his political beliefs, Robeson is a shining example of courage and humanity, and it is right that Mountain Ash people feel pride in the relationship they built with the man and in the concert they hosted, which should be remembered as an exceptional night.”
The son of an escaped slave, Paul Robeson stood up against the racism and inequality that plagued black Americans, and against injustice everywhere.
Dr Ward said: “Before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, there was Paul Robeson – who used his fame and influence to stand up for civil rights and fight for a fairer society.”
He added that Robeson believed that his political education began in Britain, shaped by his contact with working people, and he forged an unbreakable bond with the miners of South Wales.
He sang to raise money for the Miners’ Relief Fund, and also visited Spain to sing for the International Brigade fighting against the fascists in the civil war.
Robeson’s appearance in 1940 film The Proud Valley, set in a South Wales mining community, is still remembered as a groundbreaking portrayal of a black man as a hero, at a time when prejudice and hatred were causing untold suffering to African-Americans.
The 1938 concert in Mountain Ash was attended by a packed audience of 7,000 people.
Presenting the evening, acclaimed miners’ union leader Arthur Horner said: “In South Wales we have always lived for freedom and are determined to fight for it.”
Historian Professor Hywel Francis described the concert as an emotionally charged evening symbolising the cause of internationalism which the Spanish struggle represented.
The Paul Robeson Wales Trust was set up in 1999 to create the Let Paul Robeson Sing! exhibition and now continues to promote the memory of him and his bond with Wales.
The exhibition was officially opened in 2000 at the National Museum of Wales with backing from Paul Robeson’s late son. Designed by Phil Cope, it was made possible with financial support from the Welsh and UK governments.
Paul Robeson Jr described the exhibition as a “vibrant, living testimony to the connection between my father’s legacy and Welsh life today and in the future”.
Mike and Eirwen now plan to build on enthusiasm for this project by putting together the Proud Valley Group to organise a larger celebration of Paul Robeson in Mountain Ash early next year.
Paul Robeson in 1958
Paul Robeson, left, in The Proud Valley