A Rough Sunday At Peekskill

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Into this political stew, in August of 1949, stepped Paul Robeson—black, loudly leftist, and, to villagers throughout the Peekskill area, the personification of near-treasonous anti-Americanism. Robeson was no stranger to the area. He had given concerts there in each of the two preceding years, and they had gone off without incident. But by the summer of 1949 the escalation of the Cold War and of Robeson’s pro-Soviet rhetoric had made him an unwanted guest.

A left-wing group called People’s Artists, Inc., scheduled an outdoor Robeson concert for Saturday evening, August 27, at Lakeland Acres, a commercial picnic ground. Lakeland Acres actually was located north of Peekskill, in the town of Cortlandt, but posters announcing the concert—and its beneficiary, the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress—appeared in Peekskill and nearby villages. Four days before Robeson’s scheduled appearance the Peekskill Evening Star began voicing displeasure over it. “Time was,” the Star said editorially, “when the honor [of a Robeson concert] would have been ours—all ours,” but that time was past. Now “every ticket purchased for the Peekskill concert will drop nickels and dimes into the till basket of an Un-American political organization. If the Robeson ‘concert’ this Saturday follows the pattern of its predecessors, it will consist of an unsavory mixture of song and political talk by one who has described Russia as his ‘second motherland,’ and who has avowed ‘the greatest contempt for the democratic press.’ The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out.”

 

The theme that was to justify active opposition to the Robeson concerts—“silence signifies approval”—was thus introduced. The local veterans’ organizations were quick to pick it up. American Legion and VFW posts in Peekskill, Verplanck, Ossining, and several other villages held meetings to discuss the situation. In a letter published in the Evening Star Vincent Boyle, commander of the Legion’s Verplanck post, urged “loyal Americans” to “vehemently oppose” the appearance of Robeson and his followers: “Let us leave no doubt in their minds that they are unwelcome around here either now or in the future.” The veterans’ groups planned a joint “patriotic demonstration” at the concert site. Suddenly a cultural event had become a political issue. Leftists and civil libertarians sent telegrams to New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey and various Westchester County officials asking them to prohibit the demonstration or, failing that, to provide the concertgoers with police protection.

As it turned out, the first concert was aborted. Violence broke out an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, and the car carrying Robeson to it was shunted away from the scene. The veterans’ “patriotic demonstration” turned into a small riot in which one man was stabbed, one suffered a brain concussion, and numerous others were treated for cuts and bruises. Robesonites, almost all of them local residents, were set upon as they tried to arrange the picnic grounds for the concert. The taunting, pushing, and sporadic rock throwing and fistfighting centered on a narrow dirt road leading onto the grounds. A group of some three dozen Robesonites, about half black and half in their teens, “held” the road in paramilitary fashion, protecting 12O-odd women and children gathered at the site. Howard Fast, who became impromptu commander of the defenders, describes the events vividly in his small volume, Peekskill: USA: “I had not fought this way in fifteen years … not since the gang fights of a kid on the New York streets; but now it was for our lives. … ‘You’re never going out,’ they screamed. ‘Every n—— bastard dies here tonight! Every Jew bastard dies here tonight!’”

Fast’s account, although marred by exaggeration and Marxist rhetoric, is substantially supported by other participants and eyewitnesses. Herbert Williams, at that time a Croton resident, recalls that as his car approached Lakeland Acres “a black man was brought out to the highway, bleeding. At the entrance to the place, I saw a woman I knew. She was terribly bruised, her jaw all red, and she was crying. Later, her husband’s business in Croton was boycotted—just because they went to hear Robeson sing. They were so traumatized that they moved from Croton and have never returned.” A Croton woman remembers that as her car crept through the crowd leading to the entrance “men lining the highway called us names—‘Communist bastards,’ ‘nigger lovers.’ None of my friends ever reached the concert site, except those who went early to set up chairs.”

Before the evening ended, those chairs were burned by the demonstrators, along with a Ku Klux Klanstyle cross. The handful of sheriff’s deputies at the scene acted with just enough vigor to keep the Robeson group from being annihilated. Even after state highway patrolmen arrived, no arrests were made. Spokesmen for the local veterans’ organizations later blamed the violence on “hoodlums,” neglecting to add that some of the hoodlums were wearing American Legion and VFW caps.