AH: This is a story of Paul Robeson and the two Peekskills. The riots and concert at Peekskill, New York fifty years ago, are almost unknown to Americans today. Paul Robeson, then among the most famous men in the world is known now only to some. This is because of fear, blacklists, silence and ignorance. Listen to the story so the cold war spell can be broken. Paul Robeson had been an All American football player and then valedictorian at Rutgers. He had performed in plays and movies from Othello to Showboat. but he was best known on all continents for his amazing deep, voice. Fred Hirsch and Ginny Muir, now Ginny Muir Hirsch, were among those lucky enough to have met Paul Robeson, and their stories tell what happened at Peekskill, fifty years ago this summer.
FH: I lived in Peekskill or Mohegan Colony four miles outside of Peekskill and Robeson had given concerts in the Peekskill area several years previous to 1949. And when Robeson came to give concerts in the area, he stayed at our house. Whew, the first time I remember him, knockin' on the door, because that was where it was up close; and then he just filled the doorway and was immediately an old friend by the time he got three or four steps into the house. Because he was smiling and greeting everybody and shaking hands and hugging. It was his way of greeting people, was to become an old friend in a very few moments. I remember sittin' on his lap at one point.
GH: I remember but I saw him at a meeting where he walked in a room and I had never seen a human being with that kind of stature. He was, you know, huge, and had this beneficent smile, and he was very dark and when he spoke at the microphone it was like everybody in the room sort of moved back cause he had this incredible voice. You could feel the walls vibrate, it was an old hall, I remember knowing that he had been an All American football player, and then he comes off as this gentle giant. He sang in every language you know, it was just unbelievable. He was one of the most gracious people I've ever met in my life, he just encompassed everybody.
FH: Oh at that time he was, in my experience, he was the greatest hero that could walk. And in the country in general he was very well renowned. I remember on the subway seeing the ads for Robeson for Othello, and he was the best known singer
GH: Well, he was certainly the best known artist in our country.
FH: He was probably better known in the rest of the world,
AH: Robeson had increasingly used his amazing voice against racism. He spoke out in favor of independence for colonial nations in Africa, and he questioned Black Americans fighting against the Soviet Union where minorities were given full legal equality. At Peekskill, New York in August 1949 there was to be a benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress of Harlem. Several dozen locals including veterans groups, who were against communism and civil rights, threatened violence in order to stop the concert. Knowing nothing of these threats, Judy Muir had gone up from New York City for the day to help set up in the amphitheater. She had gone on a soda and chips run for the group.
GM: By the time I got back to the entrance to this little amphitheater, you had to cross a little bridge, it was a gully, about a thirty foot drop, and you crossed a little bridge and then you had to park cause you didn't drive your car in. And they just surrounded me. They were yelling, they were drinking beer, um it happened so quickly that I was just floored. I was very frightened, so I just sat in the car and the sheriff stood right in front of the car. And it turned out he was the sheriff of the county. And he said "Where do you think you're going?" "I'm going in there, I have friends in there, I'm their ride. We're having a picnic." And he said, and he sneered, he really sneered, and he said, "You may get in, but you're not gonna get out." Well that frightened me, meanwhile they were sort of beginning to rock my car, and I put the car in gear, it was an old shift car, and I said, and I had the windows up and it was sweltering, but I had the window cracked about two inches on the driver side, and I just said, you better watch out, I'm coming through, and I put the car in first gear and just started to inch, and they did move, you know, slowly move back. And I drove over this little bridge and parked my car and ran like hell down the hill into the amphitheater.
AH: The mob-like, name calling protesters, blocked cars headed into the amphitheater. Robeson's friends, who had picked him up at the train station, took him to a nearby house for safety. Meanwhile, those setting up were trapped inside the amphitheater.
GM: I began to get quite frightened, I realized this was not just a small bunch of people, it was a large group. Um, as it began to get dark, some guys came in with great big bats or sticks or something and began knocking at the stage and started to push over the chairs that we had set up so neatly. We heard this banging and then as the sun really started to go down, and no other people were coming, which was another frightening thing. I had gone back to my car and gotten the tire iron cause I had a big skirt with big deep pockets, one of those '50's/'49- whatever- skirts, and had put this tire iron in my pocket. Then the cops didn't come and, and, we went and called again. That is, I went and called. The farmer was, by this time, pretty upset, to say the least and he said, "I think you folks better stick together, and there well we'll see if we can get help." So I called and they said "yes ma'am, yes ma'am." That's all they said. And we called, I think, probably, six times without any response whatsoever. Uh, Obviously the crowd swelled because you could hear, you know, at night in the country, you can hear voices and it began to get pretty menacing.
And it just, the time seems interminable, but, as it was getting dark, this young man came down the hill. He had come in from one of the outlying areas. And, his head was totally bloody and he was staggering. And his head was bleeding so we put him down and I put his head in my lap cause I had this big skirt. And then two crosses were set on fire on the hills. And then I knew we were really in trouble. Well we heard car motors out on the road, but they didn't come in, no one came in. And then they set the stage on fire and they piled up some of the chairs and set them on fire. So we were like huddled by this little pond. And they were over there. They didn't come after us. They just wanted to stop the thing. You know your anger rises as you realize that no one is coming to help you, that there is no help in sight. And, what's going to happen to you?
The troopers came in at two in the morning. The cops came in and we were told that we were being escorted out. And as I was escorted out with two or three other people, I didn't see my car, (chuckle) because it wasn't there. And somebody said look, look at that car. And there was my car upside down, down this thirty foot drop.
The state police brought... NO! people came from the community, including Camp Unity, which was a progressive camp up there. They came with a bus, and were escorted by the police with a bus. And they took those of us who were in there to two places and I went to Camp Unity where then people drove us into the city. And I just remember being so exhausted, it was like, four in the morning. You know, five in the morning, I'd been up since five the morning before and the emotional drain was such that (laugh) I was not much aware about anything that was going on, except as I drove, I have to tell you, I got angrier and angrier.
AH: Robeson returned to NYC, as did Jenny, who went straight to the Civil Rights Congress office because she was angry that the volunteers had not been told of possible danger.
GM: So when I was brought back to New York, I went right to the Civil Rights Congress office. That was like, six in the morning, seven in the morning, Sunday morning, it was hot. And I had (laugh) this blood stained skirt on, it was just stiff you know, with blood, and I was dirty and tired. But I was mad! I was really mad. And I went in the office and started, sort of, blathering at them. And the guy said, "Here's some cab fare, go down to the..." I think it was the Hotel Webst..., no, the Hotel Lincoln. Er, one of the old hotels in New York that had a big room. And I said, "Why?" and they said, "Robeson's having a press conference and you're the first person to make it out, to come back." Well, I went there because I was mad at them. And wanted to say, "How dare you not tell people that this was...?" They had just totally underestimated the enemy, as it were. So I got taken down to this press conference and walked in and Robeson wasn't there yet and here was this (chuckle) giant room full of, oh Id say maybe 80 to 100 press people. You know, the AP and the UP and Foreign Press and everybody. And then Robeson came in, well just standing there beside him, I, of course, felt better, and he just nailed them, you know, he really saved me. It was a scary, scary time. But I survived. And then we prepared for the next one, cause Robeson said, that hadn't occurred to me, I just thought, God we're all so lucky to get outta here. And then he said, "I will sing. If the people want to hear me, I will sing and I will sing again immediately."
AH: Through the next week, people prepared for another concert which was to be held near Peekskill the following Sunday. Fred was among those organized to go up and provide security. Men from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War provided protection for Robeson. And others including vets and union members ringed the concert area standing shoulder to shoulder, arms locked. Fred was among those who went up to be part of the line.
FH: We left about three or four o'clock in the morning and we got up there in the dark. And we hadn't slept. We were part of the guard. We were set up among the 1500 mostly men, probably all men who ringed the area where the concert was to be held. As Ginny said, there were bats around and we had soda bottles and rocks all in the grass, nothing obvious, but already for doing whatever was needed to defend the area and defend the people who were expected to come in. Now, it was with people from our theater group, and it was a calm Sunday. As the morning came on there seemed to be that there couldn't possibly be a problem because the numbers kept increasing and it started with, probably just a few hundred and a few hundred who were fifteen hundred people, just ringing the area. And, it was just a hot day in the sun, waiting for things to come off. And, and the crowd began to, to grow. The security was organized by veterans centered around the furriers union. The guy in charge was Leon Strauss, from the furriers union, and they wore their uniforms and it was the reason for wearing their, their wartime uniforms was to show that we were on the side of the angels. We are America. And it was the, the right thing to do.
AH: As Robeson sang to an enthusiastic crowd she knew that a sniper had been prevented from shooting him. Successful security allowed the people to enjoy Robeson's voice and the summer afternoon. It was on the way out that events, with the blind eye of local law enforcement, turned against the concert goers and those who had made sure the concert was safe. Local police directed everyone leaving the amphitheater, down the country road where a mob attacked the cars and busses.
FH: We were one of the first cars that came through and the car was pummeled with rocks, but we kept on going. The State Troopers, which is what the state highway patrol is called in New York, uh, directed all the cars down a single road and that road went for several miles through, uh, it was a narrow road....
GH: A wooded area.
FH: A wooded area, and there were probably hundreds of people standing there next to piles of rocks. And every car that went through, and every bus that went through were pummeled with rocks and these people were protected by the police, by the state troopers.
GH: They had been collecting the rocks for them for the whole week. Nobody, you don't get a pile of rocks, a big, we're talking about a big.... windows broken cars, uh one guy blinded from broken glass. They would direct you but you had only one way you could go. You know, these are country roads and uh, you don't have piles of rocks and people standing out in the middle of, you know along the side of the road for nothing, it was quite obvious.
FH: All they needed to do was not patrol there.
GH: And they didn't.
FH: Direct everybody down the one road, and that was not the only road available, but they had the demonstrators, the counter demonstrators blocking the other roads and the police allowed them to block those roads. It was obvious collusion between the State Troopers and the local sheriff and the veterans groups.
GH: And you know, they, they... cars with black people in them especially...they, they'd rock them and turn them on the side, with the people inside. It was just wrenching . So you know numbers don't always do it.
It was wonderful, it was, you know, the first time I realized the power of organization. How the word can get out and you can really, you know cause we had a lot of people. And busses and busses full of people.
FH: And it was organized by the union.
AH: Over 100 people were injured, mostly from flying glass. Luckily no one was killed. Again Ginny and Fred were upset by the violence. But at the same time they were exhilarated over the success of the concert. That as many as 25,000 had come to enjoy themselves. But in cold war America, Robeson was not to be allowed to sing and speak freely. It became almost impossible for him to rent halls for concerts. The US Government took away his passport to cut him off from singing and speaking to the rest of the world. Americans would not know of him for more than a generation. Ginny herself was called before a grand jury where the District Attorney tried to intimidate her as many DAs were doing to many other Americans of the time.
GH: The DA was this big florid faced Irishman whose name was O'Brien and I found out only because the bailiff or the clerk of the Grand Jury said this is Mr. O'Brien, he'll be asking you the questions. And the very first questions he asked after identifying me, having me identify myself, he asked me if I was Jewish, before he asked me if I was a Communist. Now that to me was the most startling thing of all. And I certainly wasn't going to answer him. And I just looked at this bastard, and I said, "Why Mr. O'Brien, would anybody ask you if your were an Irish, Catholic?"
AH: The Grand Jury declared that the riots were the fault of the concert goers. Paul Robeson was no longer heard in major halls and he was not mentioned in establishment print, radio or T.V., effectively blacklisted.
On this anniversary, it's good to learn of Paul Robeson and the Peekskill riots to recognize and remember the tremendous effect that the Cold War has had on our country. We can be reminded that in spite of guarantees of free speech Americans have been silenced. We can reflect on the fact that fear affected nearly half a century of Americans understanding of the world. We can celebrate the life of Paul Robeson, whose story is being shared by those like Fred and Ginny Hirsch with those not alive at the time of the Peekskills.
And we can hear again of his great voice, great activism, great heart, and great purpose.