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Date: Sat, 6 Mar 1999 21:57:01 -0600 (CST)
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.org>
Subject: Robeson and Peekskill "riot"
Article: 56824
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.2870.19990307061544@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

The First Peekskill ‘riot’: August 27, 1949

By Virginia Hirsch, 25 June 1998

[This] interesting small speech...was presented a few months ago in San Jose at a showing of Robeson's "Proud Valley", The Peekskill affair...was, of course the turning point of repression against Paul Robeson and a point of intensification of the Cold War against labor and peoples' organizations. Ginny [the author] has been a lifelong trade unionist, was on the E Board of the Santa Clara County Central Labor Council for 12 years and is presently a delegate to the Santa Cruz Central Labor Council from SEIU Local 415.

Note: The publisher has made very minor editorial revisions for the sake of clarity. HB

Apparently there are very few of us left who managed to get to [attend] both Peekskills. I'll briefly tell you about the first non-concert.

For a young woman out of the hills of Pennsylvania, a white Anglo-saxon protestant, August 27, 1949, was, if not the beginning of my political understanding, the day and night that shaped my life.

At this first concert, which didn't come off, several of us went up from new york city to picnic, swim and then help set up the chairs and other items for the evening concert. We were supporters of the sponsoring organization, the Civil Rights Congress. We were eager to hear Paul Robeson sing, and this event had been held for several summers in the area.

About 4 o'clock I was sent out by our group of about 6 people to get some sodas. I was the one with the car, a '38 Olds. The town of Shrub Oak was about 2 miles away, and as I left I noticed some activity down the road. When I returned to enter the meadow where the concert was scheduled, a large crowd had gathered...many wearing VFW and American Legion hats, Lots drinking beer, and they surrounded my car, began to rock it and were shouting things like "commie jew bitch," "niggerlover" and other epitaphs. I was really terrified, but knew I had to get back into the picnic area because my friends were in there. I put my car in gear and an obese middle-aged man stepped in front of my car. He was wearing a badge - Westchester County Sheriff. It was he, and he was not a deputy, ... who said, "you might get in, but you won't get out." I inched the car Forward and they did finally let me pass.

Within hours after reaching my friends, it began to darken, but no concertgoers were driving in, and we realized that we were trapped. A few young folks from nearby summer camps came in though the woods but there was no sign of Paul Robeson or anyone else. Then two crosses were ignited on the surrounding hills, and that set the tone for the rest of the night. Two of us ran to the farmhouse nearest the meadow and begged to use the phone. We called the New York State Police to notify them of the fires and the mob outside the entrance. They never came. We [again] called hours later, but until 4 a.m. we were trapped in this meadow while gangs came down the hills on all sides of the meadow and piled up the chairs and set them on fire. The portable stage and generator were also burned. We were not brought out by the state troopers until dawn, most of us a sorry mess. I had helped a young boy with a serious head gash so my skirt was stiff with blood. We were escorted to a nearby camp where good people who had heard of the siege took us back to the city. On our way out, I saw that my car had been thrown over the embankment by the entrance bridge.

I made my way directly to the office of the Civil Rights Congress, mainly to learn of any injuries to any others who were going to go to the concert. I had been up for 30 hours and was a mess. They sent me directly to a downtown hotel where Paul Robeson was to have a press conference. It was there that I told of the night's events and learned that Robeson was unable to get through. It was there that the New York press corps taught me how not to answer baiting questions. But Paul Robeson, with all his majestic dignity, vowed that he would sing for the people, that there would be [another] concert in another week, and that no one would stop him from singing if people wanted to hear him. His strength and resolve helped me get through that time.

You all know, I'm sure that the next concert was a great success, but when it was over, every concert-going vehicle was directed down a single road by the state troopers and was viciously stoned for several miles.

My brothers and sisters in the book and magazine guild of the United Office and Professional Employees, CIO, were there in full force to join the thousands who attended and stood guard at the concert. My learning really started there. On June 30, 1949, our union newspaper covered the Peekskill events. They quoted my words on the basic lesson of my life, "Democracy can be won only by protecting the civil and political rights of all. We must fight to make America a free, peaceful, [and] democratic nation."