A Desire for Justice: Erwin A. Salk collection on Paul Robeson

by Felicia D. Render

Paul Robeson as Othello, undated

Often a desire for justice is a demonstration of mankind’s quest for equality, which can adequately be explained in Erwin A. Salk’s passion and dedication to his work for the preservation of African American and minority history. For this blog post we feature the Erwin A. Salk collection on Paul Robeson, a small yet significant collection housed at the Amistad Research Center related to the contributions to African American classical and operatic genres.

The Erwin A. Salk collection on Paul Robeson dates from 1933 to 1976 and consists of material devoted to actor, singer, scholar and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Materials include brochures, photographs, and audiovisual materials. Items of note include recordings of proceedings held at Carnegie Hall in salute to Robeson on April 15, 1973.

Businessman, civil rights activist, peace advocate, philanthropist and educator Erwin Arthur Salk was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1918. He grew up in the Albany Park neighborhood on the Northwest side of Chicago and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago. After graduation, Salk joined the Army, then worked for the United Nations in Paris, France before returning home to work for his father’s mortgage banking firm.

Primarily remembered for his work as a mortgage banker and businessman, Salk’s passion for housing justice led him to become an advocate for the poor and compelled him to study, teach and write several works, including A Layman's Guide to Negro History and the exhibit pamphlet Dubois-Robeson: Two Giants of the Twentieth Century. Salk taught a course titled “Missing Pages in U.S. History” at Columbia College. He also became an essential figure in founding the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago.

Additionally, Salk served as a member on several boards, including the Center for Black Music Research board of directors; the executive board of the Amistad Research Center; as vice president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs; and on the board of directors for the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

Playbill, Paul Robeson in Othello, 1944

Overall, the Erwin A. Salk collection on Paul Robeson at the Amistad Research Center documents Paul Robeson’s involvement in operatic and classical genres and race relations, while complementing Salk’s dedication to preserve the legacy and passion for African American history. These primary source documents will provide additional access to materials from the classical music world.

The project to preserve and open the Erwin A. Salk collection on Paul Robeson is funded in part by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

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