- 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
It was time for Paul Robeson. He mounted the makeshift stage, ringed by the inner circle of security guards. After a thunderous ovation had died away (“I am here to applaud you,” he responded), Robeson lifted his rich bass voice over the thousands seated on the grassy slopes and—by loudspeaker—to the men on the perimeter security line. He sang “Let My People Go,” then “No John, No,” and the last aria from Boris Godunov . Following an appeal for funds by Fast (there had not been time to print and sell tickets) Robeson presented his second group of songs, highlighted by several Negro spirituals, ending with his famous rendition of “Ol’ Man River.”
At about four o’clock the motorcade of buses and automobiles carrying the crowd began making its way out of the concert grounds. When the lead vehicles reached the highway, policemen routed them left or right and onto a number of connecting roads. What had been a dreamy, if occasionally tense, late-summer idyll then became a nightmare. Men and women along the roadsides began stoning the buses and cars. Stone throwers seemed to be everywhere, forming gauntlets that the concertgoers had to run no matter which route they followed. The first vehicles out, taken by surprise, caught a fusillade of rocks through open windows but were able to accelerate away from the attackers. Succeeding drivers were both more and less fortunate. Warned to roll up their windows, they were shielded from the direct impact of the missiles. But they were trapped in creeping lines of traffic, easy prey for the attackers. The latter had ready supplies of ammunition: cairns of stones and bricks laid in the grass along the roads. Car after car became a mass of dents and splintered glass.
Not content with stoning alone, the mob rocked many cars and overturned eight of them. In several instances, the Peekskill Evening Star reported, “demonstrators attempted to drag drivers from their autos.” Violence ranged over ten square miles. At first it was concentrated near the entrance to the concert site. But after police wielded their clubs and made a few arrests, the protesters regrouped at various distances from the entrance, along the highways leading away from the site. Miles from Hollow Brook cars travelling on highways back to New York City were bombarded with large stones dropped from overpasses.
A woman from Croton, wife of a Daily Worker editor, remembers the events in vivid detail. As the car in which she was riding headed up Hollow Brook’s dirt road, she recalls, we were told, “Roll up your windows, don’t stop, get out of the area as quickly as possible.” The highway was lined with policemen and with what was as close to a lynch mob, in spirit and behavior, as I can imagine. Some of the people were wearing VFW and American Legion caps. Some had on firemen’s caps. … The driver’s seat of the car I was in was shaken loose from its moorings. The windshield was broken, and the man driving was stunned and had his hand injured, so that I had to do some of the steering. That wasn’t hard, since we were able to move only about five miles an hour. It wasn’t just what you saw that was terrible. It was the sound, the frightening sound. Some men were even brandishing torches, and they threatened to set fire to our car.
Robeson made a dramatic escape from the concert grounds. According to his son, Paul, Jr., he was hustled into one car in a seven-car convoy—“no one in the place knew which one”—and told to press his large frame against the floorboards. “Several trade-union guys lay on top of him,” the younger Robeson recalls, “and the windows of the car were covered with blankets.” The convoy’s lead car, sent out as a decoy, drew so many missiles that its driver, Irving Potash, received a severe eye injury from flying windshield glass. Potash’s sacrificial sortie permitted the rest of the convoy- emerging from the grounds right behind his car—to escape relatively unharmed. Robeson senior declared later that a state trooper had come up to the window of his car, shouted an epithet, and swung at one of the doors with his billy club. The singer, however, rode through unhurt.
The violence persisted until well into the night, when the last several hundred concertgoers made their way out of Hollow Brook. Their departure was delayed by the refusal of bus drivers who had brought them from New York City to undertake the return trip; they had been hired to take people to a picnic, the drivers said, and this obviously was no picnic. From all accounts, blacks among the concert crowd were subjected to especially intense abuse. Reported the Evening Star : “Two Negro soldiers were booed loudly when they walked into the concert. … One was struck in the face, and both hustled into the grounds to escape the angry demonstrators.” Herbert Williams of Croton, who is white, says he “saved the life, or at least the health, of a black man, an auto worker from Tarrytown. He crawled under a car with a bunch of men after him. They were all half drunk, and I walked up like I was one of them and said, ‘Hey, you better get outta here. The cops are coming.’ It worked.”