Book Reviews Great Lives Opening the Archive

The Magic of Paul Robeson

Last week we had a session at the Archives+ handling table with material about the singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.

It’s a bit of stretch to call this a handling session – most of what we had out were books that you can ‘handle’ in our library at any time. Having said that, the main attraction was something from our archive; a signed copy of Here I Stand, Robeson’s autobiography, donated by Linda Clair. This definitely generated some interest – there’s something magical about seeing the marks made by a famous hand.

image of signed Paul Robeson book

We’re always looking for ways to create a bit of magic and widen the appeal of our collection. You can see some lovely, fascinating old things on the Archives+ handling table (usually on Wednesday lunchtimes – keep an eye on the Archives+ website for details), c/o our friends in Special Collections and Manchester Archives; original Shakespeare folios, illuminated manuscripts, Victorian pantomime programmes. Our more modern archival collection doesn’t perhaps carry the mystique and inherent appeal of these very old, very rare items.

But as I was reminded, the strength of our collection is that it relates to living memory and continues to have real, lived significance for the people who visit the library and encounter the collection. We were lucky that Linda joined us in person and talked about how she acquired the signed book and the significance Paul Robeson has for her personally and politically. Her father had been very active in the Manchester Communist Party alongside Wilf Charles and Len Johnson, who had a friendship with Robeson. Linda remembers her father taking her to see Robeson perform in May 1949; as the Manchester Guardian reported the following day:

In his dual role as singer and – as he was introduced – ‘champion of human rights’ Mr Paul Robeson was given an almost rapturous reception when he spoke and sang in the King’s Hall, Belle Vue Manchester, last night.

His performances were often a mix of songs and speech, on this occasion he was speaking in defence of the ‘Trenton Six’, a group of black men from New Jersey accused, on very flimsy evidence, of murdering a white shopkeeper. Robeson was due to speak on this topic at the New International Society in Moss Side the following day, but such a huge crowd turned up that he decided to convene the meeting out in the street, where everyone could hear him. Wilf Charles talks about this in his oral history interview, and there is a contemporary MEN article about it, but nothing in the MEN archives from the time. If anyone out there knows any more about this event we’d love to hear it!

Speaking of magic, we were delighted that Tayo Aluko, creator of the acclaimed play Call Mr Robeson, joined us and sang three of Robeson’s songs, including Joe Hill and the one everybody wants to hear, Old Man River. It was a fantastic bit of live interpretation of the written and pictorial material we had on the table. A hush fell over the Ground Floor as Tayo sang, and there were a few tears, as the songs evoked memories and personal significance for people.

Image of singer

Perhaps we need to call these sessions ‘Show and Tell’ – we’ll show things from the collection, you tell us what they mean. These stories help us to understand the importance of what we have and to interpret the collection for a wider audience. But most importantly, they provide the magic.

Image of people at the handling table

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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