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Singing the song of freedom

The Central Branch Library will roll back time Feb. 9 with a tribute to a great African American civil rights leader, singer and athlete of the 1930s and 1940s .

Born in 1898, Paul Robeson was raised in a time when black people were lynched by white mobs in America. The son of a former slave, he was later a valedictorian speaker from Rutgers University, and went on to act in movies and sing for audiences as large as 600,000. Later, he was shunned by the U.S. government for his unyielding civil rights and political views.

LeRoy Owens makes sure Robeson’s legacy lives on by performing songs he made famous and reciting Robeson’s speeches during tribute performances such as the one at 3 p.m. next Sunday in Bremerton.

Owens will sing five Robeson licks, including “Old Man River” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Between songs, Owens will express parts of Robeson’s speeches about civil rights issues.

Owens, who resides in Ashland, Ore., has been crooning Robeson’s tunes for five years. One time when he was in Chicago, a man told him that when he was walking by outside the building and heard Owens’ voice, he thought it was Robeson.

“He was probably the greatest bass singer this country has ever known,” Owens said of Robeson.

A few years ago, Owens began researching the charismatic man on a whim and later purchased 78 speed records so he could mimic Robeson’s voice. He even bares some physical likeness to the performer; he is the same height and weight.

There is, however, one major difference: Owens is white, Robeson was black.

But, the distinction has never been a problem at any of Owens’ performances.

“I have a deep appreciation for a great American that was written out of the history books,” Owens said. “I like to say I am really proud to be walking in his shoes.”

He realizes that even though he has read every piece of literature he could find on the famous activist, he will never truly understand what he went through.

“Paul, being a black man, grew up in a set of circumstances I know I will never fully appreciate,” he said.

People have asked Owens why he doesn’t wear black paint on his face to increase his likeness, but he doesn’t like the idea one bit.

“To me, that belittles his image,” he said.

Even in Bremerton today, Robeson is remembered as a powerful and focused civil rights advocate.

James Z. Thomas, who was recently elected as the president of the Bremerton branch of the NAACP, thinks Robeson can be an inspiration to today’s children.

“I would say to the young people that he was able to rise above the hatred and became an all-star football player, an actor and a singer. The thing he left behind is no matter where we are in life, if we don’t try to rise above that, that’s where we will be the rest of our lives.”

Thomas first learned about Robeson when he saw the old movie “Showboat,” which featured the performer’s deep, deep voice.

“Simply, you should remember the man for his music and his conscience,” Larry Robertson, pastor of the Emmanuel Apostolic Church in downtown Bremerton, said. “He was intense on what he believed in.”

Though Robeson’s civil rights work and involvement in other controversial issues caused his name to be scratched out of many American history logs, Owens revels in the opportunity to revive the spirit of a man he thinks was one of the greatest of our time.

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