Robeson, of course, knew about racism first-hand. Merchant seaman Ted Rolfs recalls being outraged at how his shipping line treated Robeson on a trans-Atlantic voyage in the 1930s, several years before the NMU’s founding. Rakishly nicknamed “Riff-Raff” Rolfs by shipmates (because he was always the opposite—immaculately groomed and dressed), he helped organize the National Maritime Union.
Ted Rolfs’ story about
From an oral history interview with Rolfs recorded by Joe Doyle on February 8, 1984. ~ Courtesy of Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.
And then when Paul Robeson came on the ship—and I realized that he’d been given a very bad seating in the dining room. I went to the Chief Steward and I said, “Mr. Robeson’s a very important man. He’s the first black man ever chosen for the All-American football team…”
…when Paul Robeson came on the ship, he’d taken his son [Paul, Jr.] out of school in Russia. And he was with Eslanda, Mrs. Robeson, an anthropologist, and his accompanist, Brown, Mr. Brown. And they were given dreadful seating in first class—right near what we called “Chinatown”—where you got the air conditioning of the dining salon—and then the doors would open and you were in the heat of the galley. Horrible! And I went to the chief steward and I said, “This man is very important. He should either be offered a seat at the captain’s table, which I doubt he would accept—because he's with his wife and party. He should be at the surgeon’s table, at the chief officer’s, at the chief engineer’s. There were a whole lot of these tables he should be offered because he’s very important.”
And I had some New Masses with me which I gave to him and I told him I was a union official on the ship. We had a crew of about 600 or more… and I was the ship’s chairman which gave me a lot of authority because I spoke on behalf of the membership.
And so then they did invite Mr. Robeson and his party to better seats, but he was deeply hurt. But they then made a big fuss over him. They asked him if he would like to sing in the dining room. There was a beautiful balcony where sometimes a passenger who was talented would go up and in this beautiful balcony area and sing down to the people dining. And there were some beautiful opera singers, especially Jews fleeing from Germany, people of wealth, getting out before the war broke out at that time… and Paul absolutely refused to sing.
And I said to him, “I’m the ship’s chairman. Will you sing to the crew?” And he accepted. And of course anyone who heard that will always remember it. He sang so beautifully…