|Guarded by union members and veterans, Paul Robeson defiantly sang at Peekskill.|
It should have been a pleasant Sunday in the country. But on September 4, 1949 the residents of up-scale, White suburban Westchester County New York got together for a well planned riot. It was the second one in a week. It was inflamed by headlines in a respectable local newspaper. It was largely organized by the local Posts of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Members of the Ku Klux Klan from far and wide came to give the locals a hand and some technical advice—and signed up more than 700 new members. It was overseen, protected, and participated in by local police, sheriff’s deputies, and State Police. When it was over most of the national media heartily approved. Members of Congress cheered the rioters and blamed the victims using on the floor of the House the vilest racial epithets available. The Governor of the state of New York, a famous former crusading District Attorney and twice the nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States not only refused to investigate but—you guessed it—blamed the victims. All because a Black man wanted to sing and a bunch of people—many of them Jews from New York City--wanted to come and hear him.
The object of all of this well orchestrated fury was Paul Robeson, one of the most celebrated—and reviled—Black men in the United States. Then 51 years old, he had already led a remarkable and accomplished life.
Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to a former slave and Presbyterian minister, the Rev. William Drew Robeson and his mixed race Quaker wife, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson. That made him by birth one of a tiny elite of American Negros. When he was just 3 his father was forced out of his long-time pulpit by the Presbytery despite the strong support of his Black congregation and the family was quickly plunged into poverty. Shortly after, his nearly blind mother was killed in a kitchen fire. The senior Robeson finally found a place at an African American Episcopal congregation some years later and the family’s lot improved.
Paul attended Somerville High School in Somerville, New Jersey where despite prejudice, everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Already towering over his classmates the powerfully built young man lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He added his powerful bass voice to the choir and discovered a love a performing while acting in student productions of Julius Caesar and Othello. Academically he was at the head of his class. And none of these accomplishments shielded him from racial taunting, which he dealt with by following his father’s advice—keep your head up, ignore insults, be unfailingly polite, and never lay your hands on a white man.
In his senior year Robeson won a state-wide competition for a full, four year scholarship to Rutgers which he entered in 1915 as only the third Black ever to attend the university and the only one during his entire tenure. As a freshman he was a walk-on for the football team, accepted by the coach over the objections of his other players. By the end of a stellar college career he was twice a first team All-American at end and considered by Walter Camp to be the greatest player ever at that position. Yet he was benched when Southern teams refused to play with a Black on the field.
Robeson also repeated triumphs on stage and academically. He added champion debater to his resume, took home the annual oratorical prize in each of his four years, earned his Phi Beta Cap key, was elected to the elite Cap and Scull Society, and ultimately was elected class valedictorian. He did all of this while working for meal money, singing off campus for cash, and in his last two years regularly commuting home to care for his dying father.t
His college career caught the eye of W.E.B. Du Bois who profiled the student in The Crisis.
After graduation, Robeson enrolled in New York University Law School supporting himself as a high school football coach and as a singer. He felt the sting of racism at NYU, moved to Harlem and transferred to Colombia Law School. Despite consistently high grades, it took Robeson four years to complete law school. He interrupted his studies to play professional football at Akron and then with the Milwaukee Badgers in the inaugural 1922 season of the National Football League. He also took time to appear on Broadway in the hit all-black revue Shuffle Along and in Taboo, an ante-bellum plantation drama produced at Harlem’s Sam Harris Theater in the spring of 1922. Later he would travel to London for a production of the play supervised by the famous actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell who added more musical numbers for Robeson.
Despite these interruptions, distractions, and a rising reputation as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Robeson graduate law school with honors in 1923. By now married to Eslanda Cardozo Goode—Elsie—an anthropologist and activist, Robeson did not practice law for long. He found his race was a barrier to the kind of career he had imagined. Instead, with Elsie’s encouragement, he turned to a full time career as an actor and singer with his wife as his manager.
By the mid ’20 he had triumphed in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, which he also took to London, and more controversially had appeared in O’Neill’s stark and damning racial drama All God’s Chillun Got Wings in which he played a Black man who metaphorically consummated his marriage with his white wife by symbolically emasculating himself. Needless to say that controversial topic created uproar across the country. He also teamed with pianist Lawrence Brown to tour the United States and Europe with a hugely successful program of Black spirituals and folk music. RCA Victor signed him to a record contract.
In Europe, particularly France, Robeson experienced a freedom from prejudice that he had never experienced at home. He found himself welcome in intellectual and expatriate communities by the likes of Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay.
|Robeson at the height of his international fame.|
In 1928 Robeson starred as Joe in the London production of Jerome Kern’s Showboat where his famous rendition of Ol’ Man River became the standard upon which all subsequent productions would be judged. The show was much more successful in London than it had been in its first New York run and lasted for more than a year at the prestigious Covent Garden Theater. He followed up with the experimental film Borderland opposite his wife.
Back in London he appeared in an acclaimed Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona which led to an affair with Ashcroft that nearly cost him his marriage.
After the affair ended and the couple reconciled, Robeson returned to Broadway for the great revival of Showboat in 1932. In 1933 he became the first Black ever to star in a major Hollywood film, The Emperor Jones. Over the next few years he made several films. Other than Showboat, most of them were British productions. Sanders of the River, a tale of colonial Kenya in which he played a local chief who aids a sympathetic colonial officer made him a major star in Britain. But Robeson was stung by criticism that the part was degrading to Africans. That sparked a new interest in Africa and his cultural roots, including the study of several African languages and involvement in an emerging anti-colonial movement.
It was associates in the anti-colonial movement that first brought Robeson to Moscow. He contrasted what he found there to the rising racism he observed in Nazi Berlin and to continued Jim Crow rule in the United States. He said “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity.” Two years later he sent his son Paul, Jr. to study in Moscow to spare him the sting of racism at.
Inevitably Robeson and his wife became drawn to the Communist Party, which in the US was one of the few movements that seemed totally open to Black participation on an absolutely equal basis. By the late ‘30’s he was spending more time as an activist and lending his talents to Party causes—particularly to support of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War—even journeying to Spain in the dark hours to perform before and support the International Brigades. He also raised money for the cause at several benefits and supported organizing drives by several unions. When his manager complained that his political work was harming his career, Robeson said, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
With the outbreak of World War II, Robeson returned to the United States. The war years were marked by personal and professional triumphs and by increasing controversy over his politics. In 1939 he starred in the hugely popular Ballad for Americans a patriotic cantata with lyrics by John La Touche and music by Earl Robinson which was aired on CBS Radio. A recording became a bestselling album.
In 1940 Robeson starred in the Ealing Film The Proud Valley in which he played a Black American who finds himself in Wales where he lends his singing voice to the famous local men’s choirs and joins coal miners in the pits where he ultimately sacrifices himself. The film was a fusion of Robeson’s political and artistic life and was well received in Britain and initially in the United States. But it would later be views as pro-labor propaganda as would the 1942 documentary Native Land about union busting corporations. That film was based on the actual reports of the 1938 La Follett Committee/s investigation of the repression of labor organizing. Robeson was off screen narrator and provided music for the film.
In 1943 Robeson became the first Black actor to portray Othello on Broadway, opposite Uta Hagen. Throughout the war years he appeared at rally and benefits for various anti-fascist causes.
With the end of the war anti-fascism suddenly became subversive, as did Robeson’s continued anti-colonialist activities and his new crusade against lynching. As anti-Communist hysteria mounted, he publicly came to the defense of accused Communists although he denied he was a member of the Party. None-the-less two organizations in which he was very active were placed on the new Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. Called before the Senate Judiciary Committee and questioned about his membership in the Party, Robeson now vowed, “Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary.”
In ’48 Robeson took a leading role in the campaign of former Vice President Henry Wallace for President on the Progressive ticket. At great personal risk he campaigned for Black votes in the Deep South. As tensions with the Soviet Union continued to rise, he echoed Wallace’s “peace platform” for accommodation with the USSR.
But it was an appearance at a Communist sponsored World Peace Conference in Paris in 1949 that started the chain of events that led to the Peekskill rioting. According to a transcription of the proceedings, Robeson told delegates:
We in America do not forget that it was the backs of white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of Blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong...We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the People’s Republics.
Somehow—and the heavy suspicion in on the intervention of American intelligence operatives—the Associated Press (AP) substituted the following “quote:”
We colonial peoples have contributed to the building of the United States and are determined to share its wealth. We denounce the policy of the United States government which is similar to Hitler and Goebbels.... It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.
The alleged quote was widely reported and unleashed a torrent of criticism and invective.
When the Civil Rights Congress, one of the “front” organizations on the Attorney General’s List announced that Robeson would headline a befit concert at Lakeland Acres, just north of Peekskill on August 27, the Peekskill Evening Star condemned the concert and encouraged people to “make their position on communism felt.” Although no overt threat of violence was made, the town was soon abuzz with plans to not just demonstrate, but to block the concert and prevent it from occurring. The Joint Veteran’s Council, spearheaded by the American Legion openly boasted that they would physically prevent any gathering.
Concert organizers, who had twice before staged events there featuring Robeson, were expecting demonstrators and heckling. They did not expect what happened. As the police stood off and refused calls for protection rock throwing, bat wielding mobs attacked concert goers as they attempted to reach the site by car. Several people were injured. A large flaming cross was observed on a nearby hillside and Robeson was lynched in effigy.
Robeson arrived at the local commuter line station where his long time friend and Peekskill resident Helen Rosen picked him up in her car. Attacks against visitors had been going on for some time and she attempted to find a safe route to the concert site. As they neared they were taunted by chants and jeers of “Niggers!” “Kikes!” “Dirty Commies.” Robeson had to be forcibly restrained from leaving the car to confront the rioters. Eventually Rosen turned around. Neither Robeson nor the audience reached the concert site.
The Legion Post commander, while denying that there was any violence during their “peaceful march” did boast to the press, "Our objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert and I think our objective was reached.
The incident sparked national headlines. Much of the commentary supported the rioters. Even many of Robeson’s former friends were now reluctant to come to the defense of a Communist. Things were different in New York radical and left labor circles. A Westchester Committee for Law and Order was hastily assembled representing local liberals and unionists. They decided to invite Robeson back to Peekskill and to demand protection from the local authorities. Separately a committee of workers from Communist led workers in the City including the Fur and Leather Workers, Longshoremen, and the United Electrical Workers vowed to supply security to insure that a concert could be held safely. After a new date. September 4, was announced, Robson appeared before 4,000 people at a support rally in Harlem. The stage was set for a renewed confrontation.
The September 4 concert was relocated to the Hollow Brook Golf Course in Cortlandt Manor, near the site of the original concert. 20,000 people showed up and safely got to the grounds protected by hundreds of union marshals who lined the approach route and circled the concert grounds. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Almanac Singers performed before Robeson took the stage to thunderous applause. Meanwhile a police helicopter swooped low over the crowd sometimes making it difficult for the performers to be heard. Police did find one snipers nest apparently set up to take shots at the stage.
Trouble erupted as concert goers attempted to get home. A convoy of busses from the city was attacked near the intersection of Locust and Hillside Avenues. Police then diverted the long line of vehicles including hundreds of cars, on a miles long detour lined with howling protesters who pelted the cars with rocks, broke windows and beat on the hoods and roofs with baseball bats and 2x4s. Several cars were turned over. Some were set on fire. Many drivers and passengers were dragged from their cars and beaten.
Among the cars attacked was one containing Pete Seeger, his wife Yoshie, their small children, Almanac member Lee Hays, and Woody Guthrie. When the windows of the car were shattered Guthrie tried to use a shirt to cover one window and keep out the stones. Unfortunately, Seeger later remembered, Woody used an old red shirt which just inflamed the mob. The occupants escaped serious injury. Pete kept several of the stones that landed inside the car and used them in building the fireplace chimney of his cabin in Fishkill.
|Black war hero Eugene Bullard being beaten by police and State Police during the riots.|
One of those injured was Eugene Bullard, a World War I veteran and America’s first Black military pilot. Both film footage and still photographs caught him being savagely beaten by the mob who was actively joined by two local policemen and State Police officer. Despite being clearly identifiable none of the officers were charged, or even questioned about the assault. Neither were many readily identifiable Legion members.
Finally union members and others including novelist Howard Fast succeeded in forming an arms linked cordon around the cars placing themselves non-violently between the concert goers and rioters. They sang We Shall Not Be Moved as rioters hurled curses and slurs. Several were injured but stood their ground and the rest of the concert goers finally got out relatively safely.
At least 140 people were treated for injuries, and some of the injuries were serious. Many others suffered lesser wounds.
In the aftermath of the riot Governor Thomas Dewey turned aside a delegation of 300 who came to Albany to demand and investigation into the riot. Dewey refused to meet with them and blamed the riot on Robeson for insisting on singing where he wasn’t wanted.
In the House of Representatives Congressman John E. Rankin of Mississippi castigated Robeson and attacked liberal Republican Reprehensive Jacob Javitz of New York for daring to defend the right of free speech, “It was not surprising to hear the gentlemen from New York defend the Communist enclave… [the American people are not in sympathy] with that Nigger Communist and that bunch of Reds who went up there.” Congressman Vito Marcantonio of the American Labor Party protested the use of the word Nigger. He was ruled out of order by Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas after Rankin reiterated, “I said Nigger, and I meant it!’
Despite protests by some civil libertarians, liberal and religious groups, the general public went along with the dominant press narrative that the violence, though “deplorable” was the responsibility of Robeson and his allies for insisting on performing. No one was ever prosecuted for the numerous assaults and damage to property. A civil suit filed on behalf of several of the injured languished in court for three years before being dismissed.
As for Robeson, his career was essentially over in the United States. Over 40 planned concert dates were canceled because of fear of violence. He was effectively blackballed from film work, radio, and infant television. His recordings and films were withdrawn from circulation. Even in college football records were erased.
In 1950 Robeson’s passport was revoked and all American ports and international airports were put on alert to prevent him from leaving the country. He was not allowed to travel again internationally until 1958, effectively silencing him both at home and abroad and leaving him virtually without any source of income.
When his passport was finally returned, Robeson resumed touring internationally based out of London, although he could seldom find a booking in the United States. Refused numerous entreaties to denounce Communism in exchange for a return to favor, or even a chance to work publicly with the growing American Civil Rights Movement which felt compelled to keep him at arm’s length. He followed the Party line during de-Stalinization, He visited the Soviet Union again, even spending time with Nikita Khrushchev at his vacation dacha.
Robeson was in Moscow in 1961 when he suffered a complete breakdown, slashing his writs in locked bathroom. He reported paranoia that he was being watched constantly—which he undoubtedly was by both US agents and the Soviets, but also reported unusual and sudden delusions and hallucinations. The onset of the breakdown was so sudden and the symptoms so dramatic that some biographers believe that he may have been slipped hallucinogens by American intelligence services in an attempt to discredit and silence him.
After years of treatments in the Soviet Union, London, and East Germany, Robeson returned to the United States a broken man. Aside from a couple of appearances, he retreated into isolation living as a virtual hermit until dying of a stroke in his Philadelphia home in 1977. His death revived interest in his career and slowly his old records and films became available again.
He was always a hero to the Black community, but in death he rose to be a cult figure on the white left far beyond his shrinking Communist community. A lot of those people in trying to rehabilitate his image down played his loyalty to the Party or portrayed him as a naïve dupe.
Robeson would have had none of it. He remained to his dying day a defiant Communist, long after many of his former comrades like Pete Seeger had left the party out of disgust with Stalinism and the authoritarian repression of popular uprisings like that in Hungary. For him the Communists were always the ones who had accepted him without question or reservation and who as far as he could see were on the right side of the struggles he cared about—anti-colonialism, civil rights, labor, and peace. He would not turn his back on them despite the enormous personal cost.
Even today Robeson’s legacy is a challenge for those that defend civil liberties even when the speech involved is highly unpopular.