- Historic Sites
A Rough Sunday At Peekskill
Paul Robeson was giving a concert. It ended in a riot that foreshadowed the McCarthy era of the 1950’s
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Then as now the radical left was centered in New York City. About thirty miles north of the city, in Croton-on-Hudson and other smaller settlements near Peekskill, was a flourishing satellite leftist community. Actually, there were several communities: Camp Mohegan, Golden’s Bridge, the Mt. Airy Road section of Croton, and a few others. They differed in origin and sociopolitical composition. Camp Mohegan, also known as Mohegan Colony, was founded in the twenties as an anarchist community, populated by, as one long-time observer of the scene puts it, “a bunch of idealists who wanted to get away from crassness and materialism.” For a while William Z. Foster, chairman of the Communist Party U.S.A., and Ben Gitlow, a high party official, lived at Mohegan. Golden’s Bridge was primarily a summer retreat for radicals and their more cautious bedfellows, liberals. There was also a small summer colony near a quarry in the Croton area. It catered mainly to Jewish trade unionists, some of them Communists, others members of the Workmen’s Circle.
Of these leftist communities Croton’s was the largest and most significant. From its inception in the early igao’s Croton was the permanent or summer home of an array of radical leftists and so-called fellow travellers. They lived—as do most of the affluent commuter residents of suburban Hudson River villages—on the hills above the river, removed physically and psychologically from the drab downtowns and their ethnic working-class inhabitants.
The leftist orientation of the Mt. Airy Road section dates back to a realestate man of anarchist sympathies (a curious combination) who developed a small section of it that became known as the colony. At its peak the colony amounted to about two dozen families of leftist persuasion. They imported speakers and staged cultural events, and prominent figures in the arts soon drifted up from the city to discover the leafy quiet and congenial atmosphere of the Croton hillsides. Among these early visitors were writers Lincoln Steffens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Max Eastman, John Reed, and Floyd Dell; artist Boardman Robinson; dancer Isadora Duncan; and actress Gloria Swanson. Most of them were politically left and culturally bohemian, and their life-styles as much as their politics irritated the villagers. There were stories of dancing on tables and uninhibited sex at parties.
The real political activists came to Croton a decade or more later: Daily Worker editor Bob Minor and his artist wife, Lydia; William Gropper, cartoonist for the Worker and New Masses ; Louis Waldman, a Socialist expelled from his seat in the New York State assembly; Communist Party official Alexander Bittelman, one of the Smith Act defendants; and, for the summer of the Peekskill riots, writer Howard East. Leftists of lesser note had long been drawn to Croton because, as one former Crotonite expressed it recently, “We knew there were ‘friends’ there.”
By 1949 most of the bohemians and many of the identifiably radical leftists were gone from Mt. Airy Road. A few Communists and anarchists and numerous members of the American Labor Party remained. So did a good many liberals, people whom I, as a teen-ager growing up in nearby Ossining, came to know as “pinkos.” To the good burghers of Croton—and of Ossining, Peekskill, and the surrounding area—Mt. Airy Road remained “Red Hill.” Occasionally the ongoing distrust and antagonisms between “hill” and “village” focussed on a specific issue. In 1947 the integration of a local swimming pool raised one such issue. The central figure again was a Robeson—Paul junior. Blacks in those davs swam at Silver Lake, which was known to some villagers as “the Commies’ place.” But someone wanted to take Paul Robeson, Jr., as a guest to Black Rock, a private club presided over by A. E. Ottaviano, a prominent building contractor. The group that included young Robeson was refused admission, and there were mutterings on the hill about southern-style racism and in the village about nigger lovers.
Since tew blacks lived in Croton, on or off the hill, race was seldom a direct issue. As the hill people recall it, the issue—generally mufRed but always present—was anti-Semitism. “Some of us on Mt. Airy belonged to local organizations,” recalls a Jew who has lived there for thirty years, “and the resulting personal relationships sometimes transcended political feelings. But in general, being Jewish, intellectual, and liberal was sufficient to make you a Commie in the eyes of the village.”
Peekskill, five miles north of Crotonon-Hudson, was then a town of about eighteen thousand. Its population too was largely ethnic, though leavened by a higher percentage of “ WASP ’s” than was the case in Croton. Peekskill had its commuters, but fundamentally it was a town of lowermiddle-class people who worked in the local shops and small industries. That is, they did what work was available. In 1949 Peekskill’s economy was about as lackluster as its appearance.