Community to host exhibition marking 80th anniversary of Paul Robeson concert

A valley community is planning a special celebration to mark the 80th anniversary of an historic concert it hosted featuring African-American singer and civil rights activists Paul Robeson.

The unique exhibition Let Paul Robeson Sing! will be on display in the Mountain Ash Workingmen’s Club, Mountain Ash, on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th December.  

It commemorates the evening in 1938 when Paul Robeson was part of a concert at the Pavilion in Mountain Ash which paid tribute to 33 Welsh men who had died after volunteering to fight with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.  

Paul Robeson headNext 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 and bred 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.” 

Paul Robeson Poster EngThe son of an escaped slave, Paul Robeson stood up against the racism and inequality that plagued black Americans, and for 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 Proud Valley, set in a South Wales mining community, is still remembered as a ground-breaking portrayal of a black man as hero, at a time when prejudice and hatred were causing untold suffering to African Americans. 

The 1938 concert 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 Paul Robeson 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”.

The exhibition is on loan from its permanent home at the South Wales Miners’ Library, which also houses a collection of material about Paul Robeson and his links to Wales and has been supporting the Mountain Ash project.

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. 

If you would like to be part of this, or have memories, stories, souvenirs or ideas about this piece of Mountain Ash’s history, please let Mike or Eirwen know. 

Contact them on Dr Michael Ward 07890 874188/ 01792513269 m.r.m.ward@swansea.ac.uk Eirwen Hopkins 01792 604510 e.hopkins@swansea.ac.uk