- 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
The first “Peekskill riot” left the attackers cocky, the local victims fearful for their safety, and New York City’s leftist community determined to assert itself. In Harlem’s Golden Gate Ballroom on August 30, a capacity crowd heard Robeson call Peekskill a “historic turning point in the anti-Fascist struggle in America” and a conclusive answer to “those like Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt who think I had better ‘just sing.'” Communist Party leader Ben Davis announced a follow-up concert and added ominously: “Let them touch a hair of Paul Robeson’s head, and they’ll pay a price they never calculated.”
Leftists on Mt. Airy Road and its environs heartily approved the plan for a second concert and formed a committee to help implement it, but they prudently looked after themselves as well. Mt. Airy men organized a patrol to drive around the area watching for sneak attacks, since according to rumor certain houses were to be set on fire. According to another rumor the postman serving the Mt. Airy Road section was a spy, turning in to the veterans’ organizations the names of residents who were receiving “Communist” literature.
State and county officials, caught bysurprise, issued temporizing statements and promised thorough investigations of the events. The veterans’ groups did not temporize. Flushed with victory, they announced that they would oppose the second concert with a second protest demonstration. The Westchester County Jewish War Veterans engaged in heated debate over the demonstrations, but eventually gave them their sanction (although the jwv state commander warned that any member found to be involved would be court-martialled); in other veterans’ organizations few dissenting voices were heard. If the veterans needed further stimulation, the county district attorney provided it: he announced that pamphlets on the Soviet Union and two Communist Party collection boxes had been found at Lakeland Acres after the abortive concert. In Peekskill and neighboring towns a slogan appeared in store windows and on automobile bumpers: “Wake Up America—Peekskill Did!”
The Robesonites, who needed a new concert site, found a defunct country club known as Hollow Brook, located about a mile from Lakeland Acres. The man who owned Hollow Brook, Stephen D. Szego, himself became a target. Two days before the concert a volley of bullets was fired into Szego’s house, and four attempts were made to set it afire. A few hours after the concert a section of the house was burned. Throughout the following week Szego received dozens of threatening phone calls.
While the Communist Party and sympathetic groups in New York City drummed up enthusiasm for the concert—scheduled for Sunday, September 4—left-leaning labor unions devised a plan for its defense. The task of safeguarding Robeson arid an anticipated twenty thousand concertgoers was given to Leon Straus of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, who had won a battlefield commission in World War n. Straus and a staff representing a half dozen other unions arrived at Hollow Brook early on the morning of the concert and began deploying their troops, mainly union members who had been bused from the city but also resident leftists from the Peekskill-Croton area.
Governor Dewey, a middle-of-theroad Republican, ordered the assignment of two hundred and fifty state patrolmen plus several hundred deputy sheriffs from around Westchester. All were to be armed, and Dewey announced that he would hold county officials “strictly accountable” for the cops’ “full performance of their duty.” Along with the New York Times and other reputedly enlightened commentators, the governor invariably mentioned Robeson’s odious views while saying he must be allowed to express them—a posture that may have satisfied technical requirements for impartiality but did little to cool the patriotic fires of the protesters.
Sunday turned up warm and sunny, and protected by Leon Straus’s perimeter guards and the small army of police, an estimated fifteen thousand people poured onto the Hollow Brook grounds. They seemed nervous but happy, if not exuberant, as if they felt they were demonstrating the efficacy of the honored American right of free assembly. Outside, on the highway, perhaps a thousand veterans and their followers—far fewer than the protest organizers had predicted—paraded and milled about. They shouted insults at buses and automobiles entering the concert grounds and threw stones at a few of them. The police prevented large-scale attacks, and as the concert proceeded they repeatedly pushed back groups trying to force their way onto the grounds. At the concert the only annoyance was occasional buzzing by a low-flying police helicopter. The crowd basked in the September sun and listened halfattentively to the opening portions of the program. A pianist played pieces by Prokofiev and Ravel. A soprano sang. Folk singer Pete Seeger, then gaining notoriety as a “Red,” strummed a couple of banjo tunes.