When I was twelve years old, I discovered that my best friend Liz’s grandmother had, throughout her adult life, enjoyed a decades-long love affair with Paul Robeson. Singer, scholar, Hollywood actor, Broadway star, even political activist – Paul Robeson was a worldwide figure, an astonishing phenomenon, and one helluva controversial ‘catch’. Furthermore, my best friend’s grandmother Hazel Dodge was a glamorous blonde, blue-eyed belle with an old-money pedigree whose Danish ancestors had settled in North Carolina in the 1600s. I knew her well, as Liz would invite me to spend summers at the Dodge ranch up in Maine – which Hazel shared with her wealthy husband whose mild manner was in notable contrast to that of his eccentric wife. The news that Hazel had philandered with the gigantic, imposing and very black singer of “Ol’ Man River” and “Let My People Go” was, to me, a sensational revelation – but, perhaps understandably, no one wanted to talk about it. A few years later, on the occasion of one of Hazel’s visits to Liz and her parents in New York, I summoned the courage to ask her about the “Paul Robeson Affair”. Hazel’s response was nonchalant and somewhat bemusing. “Ah, yes. He was something else. You’d have liked him … he was involved in a riot at one of your rock concerts.” And with that, she flamboyantly flung her scarf around her neck like Isadora Duncan and exited the room. I was left to ponder what she could possibly have meant by Robeson’s involvement at one of “my” rock concerts – and, in fact, only recently figured it out. For it was on this day in 1949 that Paul Robeson was indeed at the very centre of a genuine riot at a genuine proto-rock concert whose line-up had included both Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The Peekskill Riots, as they came to be known, would leave one hundred and fifty people injured, several of them seriously, in what was the most serious American grass-roots confrontation of the Cold War era and an ominous prologue to the anti-Communist McCarthy witchhunts that would dominate throughout the 1950s. But first a little scene-setting.
By 1949, Paul Robeson was, at the age of fifty-one, slightly past his artistic peak but at the height of his political activism. At the Paris Peace Conference earlier that year, Robeson had acknowledged that the Soviet Union was the only nation to outlaw race discrimination, remarking: “It is unthinkable that the Negro people of America or elsewhere … would be drawn into war with the Soviet Union.”
This statement was widely reported back home, inflaming America’s bourgeoning anti-Communist sentiment, and fomenting a backlash against Robeson in the small town of Peekskill, where the great star was scheduled to perform at a Civil Rights benefit that coming August 27th. Situated just thirty miles north of New York City, Peekskill was already a divided community, its wealthy summer visitors and bohemian types causing antagonism amongst its working class residents. So when a group of angry local protestors succeeded in cancelling this Commie Shindig, they were none too happy when the sponsors – at the behest of Robeson and with the promise of police protection – simply rescheduled the concert for the following weekend.
Some 20,000 men, women, and children turned up that 4th September, the event itself proceeding without incident. But as the audience left the venue, they were confronted by a violent mob which had queued along ten miles of the surrounding roads. Visitors’ cars were overturned and stoned, windscreens were smashed, and – if a vehicle’s passengers were suspected of being Jewish or black – they were dragged out and beaten. Pete Seeger, who would later write a song about the incident (“Hold the Line”), said: “I had been hit with eggs in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, but this was New York State … We heard about 150 people standing around the gate shout things like ‘Go back to Russia! Kikes! Nigger-lovers!’ It was a typical KKK crowd, without bed-sheets.” Even World War II veterans temporarily caught up in America’s obsessive anti-Communism screamed: “We’re Hitler’s boys — here to finish his job.” Meanwhile, as the police stood by passively, hundreds of concert goers responded to the shocking scenes by forming into non-violent lines of resistance, locked arms, and sang the anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved”.
Even the great Paul Robeson escaped Peekskill unharmed only by hiding beneath blankets amidst the protection of a seven-car convoy. But his name would forever after become linked to America’s great postwar enemy. Worse still, according to Columbia University’s professor of American History, James P. Shenton, those unfortunate events up at Peekskill “opened up what was to become extensive public endorsement of the prosecution and persecution of so-called Communists.”
The Cold War was firmly in place, and McCarthyism was on its way.