White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery

By Herbert Shapiro | Go to book overview

FOURTEEN
Peekskill

THE LATE 1940s called forth commitments by white liberals to civil rights for blacks, but this was also a period in which the intermingling of cold war anticommunism with racial hatred produced a major episode of mob violence aimed at one of the nation's most widely known cultural figures, singer and actor Paul Robeson. The setting for the violence was Peekskill, New York, a Hudson River valley community in upper Westchester County. In and around this town, during late August and early September 1949, occurred what novelist Howard Fast described as "the first great open manifestation of American fascism."1Paul Robeson was scheduled to give a concert on August 27, 1949, at Lakeland Acres picnic grounds, a few miles north of Peekskill. The concert was to be the fourth in an annual series of concerts given by Robeson at various places in the vicinity. The Peekskill Evening Star, intensely hostile to Robeson, had reported that the artist had sung at Peekskill Stadium in 1947 and had also performed in 1948 at a place on Crompond Road under auspices of the Committee for the Protection of Negro Rights.2

On August 27, 1949, however, there was no concert. Instead, about 120 persons, most of them women and children, who had gathered early for the concert, were assaulted by several hundred vigilantes, using billy clubs, brass knuckles, and rocks as weapons. The vigilantes blocked the path to the picnic grounds, preventing both exit and entrance to the area. Their mood is suggested in a comment made by one of the party: "Give us five minutes and we'll murder the n_____ bastards." Forty-two men and boys held off the several attacks launched by the mob. One episode is described by Fast:

This was, in a way, the worst attack of that night. For one thing, it was still daylight; later, when night fell, our own sense of organization helped us much more, but this was daylight and they poured down the road and into us, swinging broken fence posts, billies,

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