Paul Robeson and "Freedom Train"
In 1947, the American Heritage Foundation prepared a plan to have the original copy of the Declaration of Independence and other significant historical documents tour the United States on a special train entitled the "freedom train." Although this project was endorsed by President Truman and sponsored by the Attorney General of the U. S., the American Heritage Foundation refused to guarantee the exhibition would not be segregated. Langston Hughes, the internationally renowned poet, responded to the outrage felt by the African-American community about the contradictions evident in an exhibit emphasizing constitutional ideals of freedom and justice which was touring a society where legal segregation was a daily occurrence. Hughes' poem "Freedom Train" was the result, and Paul Robeson soon recorded the piece. Robeson recited "Freedom Train" many times at his concerts, and it was a staple of his public performances up through 1960.
In the late 1940s, Robeson took the position that he would no longer sing at concerts where audiences were segregated. Kenneth Joel, a graduate of Rutgers College, Class of 1942, was present at a Robeson concert in Kansas City, Missouri when he witnessed Robeson's refusal to perform in front of a racially segregated audience.
Listen to this audio excerpt from an interview with Kenneth Joel conducted by Dr. Kurt Piehler and Rutgers student Bryan Holzmacher on December 13, 1994 click on player below:
To better understand Robeson's approach to social activism, answer these questions. You will need to read the text of Langston Hughes "Freedom Train" (see below on this page), and you can listen to Robeson's recording of the piece from 1947 by clicking on player below:
- What are the key symbols and themes evident in the text of "Freedom Train?"
- How might these symbols and themes relate to Robeson's political and cultural priorities from the time he attended Rutgers University to the 1950s?
- As you listen to the audio recording of the poem, what does Robeson emphasize as he reads the text? What moods or emotions does his reading bring forth in you? Click on player below:
- Do you feel Robeson's reading of "Freedom Train" reflected his response to events of the late 1940s, or was it the expression of longer-term commitments by Robeson about social problems in the USA? Explain using evidence from the various parts of the Electronic NJ Robeson site.
- Identify two artists today, each from different cultural groups, who make social concerns part of their artistic work. Using examples of works created or performed by those artists, judge whether or not their social activism is similar to or different from Robeson's work with "Freedom Train."
The Text of Langston Hughes Poem "Freedom Train"
The Electronic New Jersey Project extends its gratitude to Folk Era Records for granting permission to use the audio recording of Paul Robeson's performance of Langston Hughes' poem "Freedom Train" from Folk Era compact disc FE1447CD.