Those who recognize the name Paul Robeson recall the American actor and singer known for his deep baritone voice and rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” But in 1949, Robeson was considered such a controversial figure that his mere presence at concerts in Peekskill, NY, would lead to two bloody riots in a single week. For decades to come, the events that became known as “the Peekskill Riots” would mar the reputation of Peekskill, associating it with racial intolerance.
Robeson’s career developed while the US and USSR were on the brink of the Cold War, and racial violence plagued both the European and North American continents. The political landscape impacted Robeson who became an outspoken critic of Fascism in Europe and Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan violence in the US. Robeson also became an advocate of peace and championed the cause of working people and labor unions. His vocal opposition to the Cold War brought open attacks against him for being too radical and subversive.
On August 27, 1949, Robeson was scheduled to perform in Peekskill at a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, a progressive organization working to challenge racial injustice. The local newspaper condemned the event and encouraged the community to make their voices heard. The call brought several hundred veterans, local citizens, and members of the Ku Klux Kan to protest Robeson’s presence.
As protesters gathered along the dirt road outside the concert, they soon began to block the entrance, preventing concertgoers from entering. Soon small scuffles escalated into pitched battles. Protesters were overheard declaring, “We’re Hitler’s boys — here to finish his job.” A 12-foot cross was raised and set on fire. Concertgoers responded to the attack by linking arms together and singing “God Bless America” and “Solidarity Forever.” After three hours of fighting, police finally arrived to break up the riot. Paul Robeson was able to avoid the conflict because he was met en route by a supporter who led him away.
After the riot, local citizens, supporters of Robeson, and union members formed the “Westchester Committee for Law and Order” and invited Robeson back to Peekskill. Robeson accepted the request. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and several other folk singers agreed to join Robeson on stage.
On September 4, 1949, the rescheduled concert began at two in the afternoon at the Hollow Brook Country Club, about a half-mile from the prior concert site. Twenty-five thousand people attended the concert, many of whom were union members of Jewish ethnicity. Members of the Fur and Leather Workers, Longshoremen, and United Electrical workers worked security, surrounding the entire concert grounds as well as accompanying Robeson on stage.
The concert ended at around four in the afternoon without incident. However, as cars and buses started to depart from the concert grounds, police directed the vehicles through the woods, up a steep and winding road. There, crowds of men were waiting. As if on cue, they began to hurl rocks at the vehicles smashing the windows of buses and cars, including the vehicles carrying Robeson, Seeger, and Guthrie. Cars were also overturned. Bus drivers abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded. Some people were reportedly dragged from their vehicles and beaten as the mob yelled racial slurs targeting blacks and Jews. Over 145 people were injured.
In the following weeks, thousands voiced their outrage through newspapers and letters to government officials, but their complaints fell on deaf ears. Civil lawsuits were filed against Westchester County, but later dismissed. The only person to face any serious repercussions was Paul Robeson who had 80 scheduled concerts cancelled over fear of further riots.
Years later, folk singer Peter Seeger would meet a young man who confided his father had been a police officer in Peekskill and that the riots were arranged by the police and Ku Klux Klan. However, it would take fifty years for the community to admit its role. In September 1999, Westchester County attempted to make amends to survivors of the riots by holding a “Remembrance and Reconciliation Ceremony.” It included Paul Robeson, Jr. and Seeger, who was so affected by the incident that he used some of the rocks thrown in the riots to build the chimney of his cabin in remembrance