Peekskill's days of infamy

The Robeson riots of 1949

By Steve Courtney
The Reporter Dispatch, September 5, 1982.

The weathered sign at the Hollowbrook Drive-in Theatre near Peekskill advertises the movie "Neighbors," with a letter missing here or there. The ticket entrance is chained off if you visit there at midday, but you can drive over the cracked pavement of a side entrance and enter the theater, located in a 150-acre natural bowl formed by the valley of Hollow Brook.

Sept. 4, 1949: Demonstrators jeer at people arriving for Paul Robeson concert.  Riots a week earlier had cancelled a Robeson performance.
Sept. 4, 1949: Demonstrators jeer at people arriving for Paul Robeson concert. Riots a week earlier had cancelled a Robeson performance.
Paul Robeson in Harlem, August 30, 1949.
Paul Robeson in Harlem, August 30, 1949.

Thirty-three years ago, if you had tried to enter the hollow from Oregon Road on Labor Day Sunday, the picture would have been immensely different. The site of the theater was then the overgrown golf course of an abandoned country club. Fifteen thousand people sat on lawn chairs and picnic blankets, waiting for the main performer of the day's concert.

Despite the placid surroundings, the scene was not peaceful. The stage was a sound truck parked under an oak tree, and surrounding it was a line of men, black and white, shoulder to shoulder. Around the entire concert area was another line of union workers from the New York City fur, warehouse, and newspaper trades.

The site of the present drive-in entrance was then the only way into the grounds, and crowding Oregon Road were hundreds of parked cars. Several thousand American Legion members and other demonstrators against communism stood in the road.

A tall black man in a dark jacket, gray pants and a tie walked out on the stage, surrounded by 15 bodyguards.

"He walked up on stage and you could hear the most horrible epithets coming from people on the sidelines," said one woman who was there while her husband stood in the protective ring of guards. "He stood out marvelously."

"Suddenly, he flashed out a tremendous smile, the most winning smile of anyone I knew," she said. "The whole audience broke out into applause. He had such a magic about him."

Paul Robeson began to sing:

"When Israel was in Egypt's land
Let my people go..."

Out on Oregon Road, people started gathering rocks into piles.

* * *

It was the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1949, a time when the Soviet Union and the United States seemed to be on a collision course toward war. Only a few years before, the two countries had been allies, but what Harry Truman called the "war of nerves" between the two superpowers was on.

Robeson had achieved a prominence rare for a black American in plays like "The Emperor Jones" and "Othello," and had gone on to win the applause of Broadway and the world as a singer of art and folk songs with his rich baritone.

But he had earned another kind of prominence for his unabashed admiration for the Soviet Union. It was there, he believed, that people of all races and nationalities had achieved true equality.

He had appeared several times at concerts in Peekskill before 1949. J. Robert Houskeeper, the former supervisor of Putnam Valley, remembers him singing at Peekskill High School in 1946. In 1948 a Peekskill landowner had hosted a Robeson concert that was pelted with a few apples.

The 1949 concert was to benefit a group called the Civil Rights Congress. Leftist in orientation, it had been championing the cause of the "Trenton 6" -- six black youths sentenced to the electric chair in New Jersey. The congress had convinced the New Jersey Supreme Court to throw out the six men's convictions and order a new trial.

The legal action was expensive and the Robeson summer concert was planned to raise the necessary money. the concert was to be held Saturday night, Aug. 27, at the Lakeland Acres picnic grounds north of Peekskill. It never took place.

On Aug. 23, The Evening Star in Peekskill ran a front-page picture of a concert handbill with the headline, "ROBESON CONCERT HERE AID 'SUBVERSIVE' UNIT." It noted that the Civil Rights Congress had been named as subversive by the U.S. attorney general.

The Star editorialized that "every ticket purchased for the Peekskill concert will drop nickels and dimes into the basket of an Un-American political organization ... the time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out."

State Supreme Court Justice Leonard Rubenfeld
State Supreme Court Justice Leonard Rubenfeld

In the next few days, the local American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Jewish and Catholic veterans' groups urged Peekskill people to demonstrate against the intruders that Saturday night.

"It was an innocent march to demonstrate the opposition of the veterans to communism," state Supreme Court Judge Leonard Rubenfeld recalled in a recent interview. Rubenfeld was head of the Peekskill Jewish War Veterans and chairman of the Joint Veterans' Council of Peekskill in 1949. He was also a Westchester County assistant district attorney, under District Attorney George Fanelli.

The concert organizers appealed to Fanelli for police protection, a request he referred to the state police and the county sheriff.

On the night of the concert, novelist Howard Fast, who was to be master of ceremonies, arrived early to help set up chairs. Crowds milled around the Oregon Road entrance to Lakeland Acres, demonstrating peacefully -- at first.

Rioters wreck a car on the night of Aug. 27, when Robeson had originally been scheduled to give a concert in Peekskill.
Rioters wreck a car on the night of Aug. 27, when Robeson had originally been scheduled to give a concert in Peekskill.

Fast's was the next-to-last car to get in.

The veterans and others who, Rubenfeld said, "had a little too much to drink," blocked the driveway with logs and boulders, shouted "nigger bastards" and "Jew bastards" and started down to the picnic grove, where about 300 men, women and children had already arrived.

As darkness fell, the would-be patriots and the concert-goers fought hand to hand, the fighting slowed at times by the presence of three Westchester County deputy sheriffs. The two state troopers present remained at intersections at the fringes of the action, warning away late concert patrons. Robeson was met by friends when he arrived at the Peekskill railroad station and taken to safety.

"There was a lot of drinking. They were rowdies, and they threw a few cars over a bank," recalled Willis Jamison, who owned the grounds and walked through the melee with his father, unbelieving.

Fast was a veteran, too, and divided his people into squads. Fists and fenceposts flew. A glow appeared on a hill nearby -- a burning cross. Fast and his group linked arms and sang "We Shall Not Be Moved," the only music to come out of that night's concert.

Then, someone stabbed William Secor, a 24-year-old Navy veteran from Shrub Oak.

Fists fly during riot Aug. 27, 1949 at Lakeland Acres picnic area near Peekskill. Music is burned during riot Aug. 27, 1949 at Lakeland Acres picnic area near Peekskill.
Fists fly and music is burned during riot Aug. 27, 1949 at Lakeland Acres picnic area near Peekskill.

The attackers flooded onto the picnic grounds as the concert-goers formed a cordon around the women and children. It was dark and nearly 10 p.m., and one of the deputies doused the lights. Another glow appeared from a bonfire of books, sheet music, pamphlets and Jamison's chairs.

Two hours after the fighting had begun, the state police arrived.

The riot gave Peekskill instant notoriety around the nation and the world. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey asked Fanelli for a report, and Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, called it a "lynch attempt." During the following week, signs appeared on store windows, and car bumpers in northern Westchester: "Wake Up, America, Peekskill did!"

The head of the Peekskill American Legion, Milton Flynt, said after the riot, "Our objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert, and I think our objective was reached."

During a meeting in Harlem the following Thursday, Robeson said, "I have been to Memphis, Tennessee, and Florida, and I will return to Peekskill." The concert was rescheduled for Labor Day Sunday at 2 p.m. The organizers would bring their own protection this time, rather than wait for the police to provide it.

The Jamisons decided against leasing Lakeland Acres again, but Stephen D. Szego, who had just bought the old Hollow Brook Country Club at an auction, said he would rent it to the Civil Rights Congress for the concert. Szego told The Evening Star, "We are certainly not Communists or Communist sympathizers, but simply old-fashioned enough to believe that citizens of all races and creeds still have their freedom of expression by song and word."

The veterans' groups were quick to pick up the gauntlet, and immediately planned a larger parade for Sunday. The Veterans' Council rejected a request by Fanelli and The Evening Star that the march take place in the City of Peekskill, three miles away, and not on the narrow road outside the concert area.

"At that point, it was a matter of principle," said Rubenfeld. Fanelli ordered him to stay away from the concert grounds, however. "The D.A. wasn't pleased that I had been involved in the first incident," said Rubenfeld.

Gov. Dewey had threatened during the week to hold Fanelli and county Sheriff Fred Ruscoe, "personally accountable" for whatever was going to happen.

In New York City, concert tickets were passed around in radical clubs and trade unions.

Irving Kratka was then a 17-year-old shipping clerk and a member of Local 65 of the Warehouse Workers Union.

"The word went around that the concert was going to be given again. I was interested in music and in Robeson, and I was curious to see if he was going to be given the right to sing. I didn't get the overtone of a violent confrontation," Kratka said recently.

Supporters of Paul Robeson form a defense line in field near Oregon Road before the Sept. 4, 1949 concert.
Supporters of Paul Robeson form a defense line in field near Oregon Road before the Sept. 4, 1949 concert.
Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was to perform at the concert, along with several folk singers and musicians, before Robeson appeared. Seeger arrived early, at 11 a.m. The line of 2,500 union members was forming around the field like a human wall.

Seeger's wife, Toshi, his 2-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, Toshi's father, and another couple were with him in the Jeep station wagon.

"It may sound silly now, but we were confident law and order would prevail," said Seeger in an interview. "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 bedsheets," Seeger said.

The police confiscated some baseball bats from the concert guards, and prevented a few clashes during the concert, which went on peacefully. Seeger sang folk songs, playing his banjo, and the program ranged through Mozart and Handel before Robeson came on.

Warren Moscow
Warren Moscow

Most of the reporters present were outside the concert area, out on Oregon Road where the veterans' groups marched with their own bands. Warren Moscow, covering the concert for The New York Times, recognized someone he knew: Al Johnson, a state police sergeant. "Johnson was white with wrath because most of the local police were fraternizing with the demonstrators," Moscow said.

He noticed that about every 20 feet along Oregon Road were cairns of stones. It would have been difficult to remove the piles quickly; he noted that "the local police had no interest in doing so."

The concert ended. "As the first cars came out, the police were kind of holding people back," Moscow said. Then, about 800 yards from the entrance, the first rocks flew.

The rocks crashed through windows of cars and buses. Splintered glass flew into eyes, rocks hit foreheads and shoulders. Blood flowed from cuts.

Kratka's bus moved out of the gate onto Oregon Road, where vehicles were moving at a crawl through the one escape route the police kept open.

Kratka saw houses displaying American flags, and on the lawns were men and women tossing stone after stone while policemen on motorcycles rode beside the bus and did nothing.

"You've got to understand that there were just regular Americans, the kind you might meet going fishing," said one man who was there to provide Robeson security.

"People were holding beer bottles in one hand and were throwing rocks with the other," Kratka said. "Everybody got down on the floor of the bus. Every window was knocked out, but there were only a few injuries and cuts."

Seeger left the concert grounds with his wife and children, his wife's father and another couple. One of the concert guards told them to roll up their windows. A policeman in the road waved them south toward Peekskill. Around the corner was a man standing next to an immense pile of baseball-sized rocks. He took aim and hit the Seegers' car.

The stones came faster, and Seeger told everybody to get down. The windows smashed inward. A woman in the car was hit. Danny Seeger, 2, was huddled under the Jeep seat. He was covered with glass.

Seeger saw a policeman with his arms folded near on of the rock throwers. He rolled what was left of his window and shouted, "Officer, do something!"

"Move on, move on," said the policeman.

Gabe Pressman, there as a reporter for The World Telegram, saw a local journalist he had respected walking down the street. "He was with a gang and he called out to me, 'It's a great day for the Irish.' I felt nothing but sickness."

Moscow, driving northward to Putnam Valley to file his story, ran into a hail of rocks near Oregon Corners.

South of Peekskill, the rock-throwing continued through Buchanan, Montrose and Croton along Route 9 as the smashed and dented cars and buses headed back to New York City.

Herbert Lewis of Yorktown Heights, who was injured during the Sept. 4 riot, lies in a nearby cemetery while awaiting treatment.
Herbert Lewis of Yorktown Heights, who was injured during the Sept. 4 riot, lies in a nearby cemetery while awaiting treatment.

The tally of injured was 145, including concussions, smashed faces, injuries from flying glass, cuts, broken bones and crushed fingers.

In the days that followed, the news of Peekskill was carried in newspapers, on radio and newsreels around the world. In Westchester, smashed windshields became a badge of courage for the local radicals and a provocation to further violence for some of their neighbors. As soon as he got home, Seeger systematically knocked the remaining glass out of his car windows to ensure that shopping trips into nearby Beacon would be peaceful.

Gov. Dewey ordered an investigation, but put it in the hands of Fanelli, the man he had charged with the responsibility of seeing that what happened didn't happen.

Fanelli presented his information to a county grand jury. Its report absolved the police from blame in the first riot, ignored concert-goers' charges that police stood by or even joined in the second riot, and devoted a great deal of space to pointing out the dangers of communism in Westchester. The concert organizers had provoked the riot for propaganda purposes, according to the report.

"Peekskill got a name for bigotry that it didn't deserve," said Rubenfeld.

* * *

The Hollowbrook Drive-In is peaceful now, except for a little noise from its patrons once in a while, some of whom are the sons and daughters of the people who threw rocks that day, or of those who listened to the concert. Robeson lies in a Westchester cemetery about 25 miles away, and most of those who stood on both sides of the lines are gray-haired. For many of them, the day of the concert was a triumph of free speech tarnished by mob violence; for others, it was an unfortunate but understandable reaction to treasonable activity.

To some, it is all a blur. "I don't remember much of what was said because I was busy listening for rocks," said one press photographer.

Others, who weren't there, remember. An elderly Israeli tourist, visiting America for the first time this summer, was asked by his host if he wanted to see West Point, Bear Mountain and other Hudson Valley sights.

No, he said, he wanted to see where the Peekskill riots took place.

Steve Courtney is Putnam editor of The Reporter Dispatch in White Plains.