Paul Robeson at the Peace Arch

Posted by Daniel on Nov 8, 2009 - 4 comments

I was just listening to The Sunday Edition on CBC radio (surely the best program on the public network). Host Michael Enright was replaying a documentary about American singer Paul Robeson's Peace Arch concert in 1952. It was good to be reminded of the story. If you don't know about it I would recommend tracking down Enright's show through the CBC website (

Members of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Union were meeting in convention in Vancouver in February 1952 and invited Robeson to sing at the meeting. But the US government had seized Robeson's passport -- it was the McCarthy era and Robeson was a well-known civil rights activist with socialist sympathies -- so he could not cross the border to attend. Instead he sang via the telephone.

The union decided to organize a concert at the Peace Arch border crossing just south of Vancouver and on May 12 Robeson appeared in front of a crowd estimated to be 40,000 people. Accompanied by Lawrence Brown on piano, Robeson stood on the back of a flatbed truck and sang many of his popular songs, including Ol' Man River in a rendition that moved many in the audience to tears.

Robeson gave three more concerts at the Peace Arch during the 1950s. He died in 1976. In 2002 the fiftieth anniversary of the historic concert was commemorated with an anniversary celebration at the border.