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.
A group of Robeson supporters known as the The Westchester Committee for Law and Order formed. The group elected to protect the concert grounds from rioters and pledged their support of Robeson. On August 30, Robeson spoke in Harlem, vowing to return to Peekskill and fearlessly denouncing the rioters. The second concert went off without any problems. However, exiting the venue would be another story as anti-Communist protesters began attacking the crowd and blocking buses going southbound.
The crowd hurled rocks at the concertgoers and cursed at them. Police watched as attendees linked arms in nonviolent resistance and were beaten by the crowd. Over 140 persons were injured, including the first Black combat pilot in World War I, Eugene Bullard.
In September 1999, officials in Westchester County held a “Remembrance and Reconciliation Ceremony” on the 50th anniversary of the second riots. Paul Robeson Jr., folk singer Pete Seeger, who was a performer at the second concert, and others spoke in memory and apology to those who survived the attacks.