Paul Robeson was one of America’s most gifted actors and entertainers, who achieved international stardom by way of his dignified stature and prodigious talents. However, Robeson’s anti-colonialist views, his outspoken thoughts on the Ku Klux Klan and his support of perceived pro-Soviet policies made him an enemy of the state. On this day in 1949, a riot broke out in Peekskill, New York after Robeson was slated to perform at a venue there.
Robeson fell into discord with America long before comments he made in Paris that year were twisted to make it seem that he was sympathetic to the U.S.S.R. At that time, the Soviet nation was American’s sworn enemy and fear of Communism was high. Robeson performed three times prior in Peekskill, but when the inaccurate report was printed in local papers, the public was outraged.
On August 27, the day when the concert was to take place, angry white mobs took to the Lakeland Acres near Peekskill where Robeson was headed by car. As he and his colleagues approached the venue, Robeson heard the mob chanting anti-Semitic slurs and burning wooden crosses. An effigy of Robeson was set up as if he was lynched. Though Robeson attempted to address the mob, he was whisked away.
Armed with bats and rocks, the mob attacked concertgoers. The local police didn’t respond to the unrest until much later and when they did, they did nothing to stop the melee. Cars were overturned and copies of Robeson’s music were burned. About 13 people were seriously injured. The concert was postponed until September 4, but that wouldn’t be the end of it.