Paul Robeson in Duluth

What is Paul Robeson’s connection to Duluth? For some reason I’ve never wondered about this before. Today someone asked me.

Paul Robeson was a singer, actor and football player who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. You can read about him on Wikipedia and numerous other places on the Internet.

The Paul Robeson Ballroom is part of the Kozy Apartments complex, which has been shuttered since 2010 due to three arson fires. (Photo above by Daniel Kerkhoff.)

There is a one-man show, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, running at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. through Feb. 16, that mentions Robeson was in Duluth in 1947. (The show is probably based, at least in part, on the 1977 documentary film The Tallest Tree in Our Forest.)

That’s all we’ve got. Help fill in the blanks.


Lisa Swanson

about 10 years ago

Actually what's running here now is a live show at Arena Stage, written and performed by Daniel Beaty. But thanks for posting the question here. Someone out there will know this.

Paul Lundgren

about 10 years ago

Thanks for the clarification, Lisa. I've updated the original post with that info.


about 10 years ago

I don't have access to newspaper accounts of that time period, but I do have a giant tome of a biography of Paul Robeson within reach of my bed, and can say this: 

Post WWII (just as post-WWI) there was a significant resurgence in anti-black violence, and lynchings were on the rise again. (Black men went to war and came back expecting to be treated like veterans and human beings. How crazy!) 

Paul Robeson began an American Crusade on Sept 23, 1946 that went on for 100 days, where he visited lots of US Cities in an effort to get a federal anti-lynching law. He met with President Truman, who thought he was too radical. In 1946-47 also, there was a huge shake up in Truman's govt over whether or not to pursue the Red Scare purge, and Robeson allied himself with Henry A. Wallace, who was planning to run for president against that wave. There was also the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley bill.

So, Robeson was at the height of his controversiality at the time. Communist, pro-union, anti-lynching... He went on extensive concert tours, speaking on these issues as he went. Toronto city government, for instance, insisted that he could sing at a concert there, but not speak. He would join union pickets at concert towns, and was really on a tear to get real progressive legislation against Jim Crow laws and behavior. 

I would imagine his visit here was part of that concert tour, campaign. I am curious now, so you can look for an article far down the road. I have a prominent local communist of the era in my sights already, and I'm betting he had contact with her as well.


about 10 years ago

My instincts are correct: Paul Robeson stayed with or visited Irene Paull when he came to Duluth.

Brad Snelling

about 10 years ago

Last year, I wrote a master's thesis for Stony Brook University-SUNY on two recitals which Robeson gave in Duluth in 1931 and 1946. In 2011, I had written a program note for Duluth's Matinee Musicale about the 1931 recital. I'm pasting it in below in case you'd like to have a look:

This year, Matinee Musicale marked the 80th anniversary of a recital given at the Duluth Armory by the African-American baritone, Paul Robeson. Robeson's March 13, 1931 program was performed with the pianist and arranger, Lawrence Brown, who would become Robeson's longtime collaborator. Based on reviews from the Duluth Herald and the Duluth News Tribune, the recital was clearly a success. Rizpah Mitchell, writing for the Herald, reported never having witnessed "a Duluth audience so completely spellbound, so insatiable in its demand for encores and unwilling to leave even at the close of a program so generous in encores that it would have taxed the voice of a less resourceful singer." Robeson's recital included the spirituals "Go Down Moses," "Deep River," "Water Boy," "Exhortation," and "Every Time I Feel the Spirit." He also performed art songs and arias by Edward Purcell, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Borodin, and Gretchaninoff. He concluded his set of encores with "Old Man River" for which he was already famous from his London performances in Jerome Kern's Show Boat during the late 1920s. (Robeson appeared in the film version of Show Boat in 1936.) On the day of his performance in Duluth, the News Tribune interviewed Robeson in his suite at the Hotel Duluth, located at Superior Street and Third Avenue East. The focus of the interview was Robeson's new found interest in Russian music. Robeson remarked, "The music of the Russian and the Negro is fundamentally the same. The peasantry, the same oppression ... All this has made me believe that the Russians, artistically at least, are my race." Robeson's appearance in Duluth came just three years before his first of many trips to the Soviet Union. Over the years, he would become an outspoken advocate for international socialism and pacifism. Although he never became a member of the communist party, Robeson's sympathy for the Soviet Union would lead, in the 1950s, to his blacklisting in Hollywood and on Broadway, and the revocation of his passport by the U.S. State Department from 1950 to 1958. The Duluth press was not especially sensitive in its coverage of Robeson's 1931 visit. As an example, in an adjacent column to the News Tribune's front page interview with Robeson, there is a story on a local minstrel show with "black face presentation" that was to be given by students at the Central High School auditorium on the same evening as Robeson's recital. Although the reviews of Robeson's recital from both local papers are very favorable, their tone will seem condescending, if not utterly racist, to a contemporary reader. For instance, in the Herald review, Mitchell refers to how Robeson delivered the set of spirituals "with all the naïve, childlike faith of his race and with the combination of humor and tragedy that made him, more than any other Negro singer, the voice of his people." The most notable detail on Robeson's return to Duluth in 1946 is that, on the morning after his recital, he sang for women strikers at the Garon Knitting Mill. This episode is mentioned in Richard Hudelson's By the Ore Docks: A Working People's History of Duluth.


about 10 years ago

Oh, well done Brad! I was just looking for my copy of Ore Docks. I think I must have lent it to someone.

Brad Snelling

about 10 years ago

Thank you, hbh1. Last year, I had some contact with Sherman Garon, who was at the Garon Knitting Mill on the morning that Robeson sang to the workers there. I would be very interested in following up on this if anyone here might know of others who could have been present that day.

JP Rennquist

about 10 years ago

This is great information.  It is especially timely as one considers the passing of Pete Seeger who was a contemporary of Mr. Robeson.

With regard to the Paul Robeson Ballroom I have some unsubstantiated speculation.  The Kozy Bar and apartments were purchased in about 2005 by Eric Ringsred. At that time I had a business relationship with Dr. Ringsred.  I know that he was very interested in using the space as a multi-cultural center for art and culture.  He was particularly interested in creating space for youth to perform music and poetry.  Again, speculating, I think that Eric wanted the "Kozy"   bar, apartments and the Paul Robeson Ballroom to be a sort of mixing place for people of diverse backgrounds to come together.  Kind of a little urban utopia in Duluth.  Paul Robeson was chosen for a namesake because - again this is pure speculation - he was a great intellect and peerless musical talent, and he was African American and an outspoken advocate for working people and he is someone who the majority of local people, especially young people, had probably never heard of before.  

Another reason he would have been chosen, as a great African American who was an outspoken critic of racism, Jim Crow and lynchings, his Duluth ballroom sits opposite the site of the Clayton, Jackson McGhie lynchings.  So the location is fitting in many ways except ... why the Kozy?  

In 2005 a group of the nation's leading architects came to Duluth for something called a charette.  I hosted one of their gatherings at the Historic NorShor. Completely selfishly I wanted to get the folks inside and get them clamoring for a full-on capital campaign to re-vitalize the NorShor and to make it a hub of rebirth in old downtown itself, it seems like maybe that is happening now, but the rebirth of Old Downtown has already happened in the last nine years and the NorShor revitalization would be more of a capstone than a foundation for that rebirth.  But anyway, the thing is, one of the sites that the charette folks kept talking about was the Kozy building - architecturally important, central, and beautiful to them.  To me, Duluth born and bred, the Kozy was a blight and an eyesore with a problem bar and problem tenants.  I could not see what the outside professional could see.  

A few years later I inquired about using the Paul Robeson ballroom for a little men's group that I am a part of and I think we were offered the space for little or no rent ... but there was some kind of catch or snafu over using the space -- fire code or accessibility or something like that.  Plus, the guys in my group kind of grumbled about hanging out at the Kozy and the kind of ne'er-do-wells that we might end up mixing with.  

That's my impression of the Paul Robeson Ballroom, kind of a great vision of exceeding beauty for community but with a lot of structural problems and generations of prejudice to overcome.  It is possible or even likely that whoever picked the name for the building also knew about the past visits by Robeson to Duluth, but I had no idea about any of that.  

Years later I snapped a little picture of a handbill/credo that was pasted to the building.  It talked about all of the things that the building "could" be.  Maybe it's still there, I don't know.  But I think that pre-fire(s) the idea was that it would be a vision of something that is almost completely opposite of the boarded up, graffitti'd, abandoned-looking, burnt out shell of a building that is how it stands today.

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