In the late summer of 1949, a racist mob in upstate New York fiercely assaulted working class blacks and whites at an outdoor concert featuring African-American singer Paul Robeson. Howard Fast, a noted American novelist, was vacationing in the Peekskill area at the time and was appointed chairman of the concert. He was at the scene when concert-goers were attacked by men throwing broken bottles and rocks; swinging clubs and fence posts; and wielding knives and brass knuckles. Shouting racial epithets, the mob was held off only by a show of black and white unity.
Fast was not only an eyewitness to these frightening events, but also, in each of two separate incidents was one the participants. His trained reporter’s eye and narrative skill produced this compelling and detailed you-are-there account of the violence. The present edition recalls that long-forgotten incident—recognized today as a milestone in the civil rights movement.
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Inside the Infamous 1949 Riots
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1951 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
The Quiet Beginning
IT HAPPENED THAT IN AUGUST of 1949, both my wife and I had much-needed vacations. She went to Europe; I rented a house in Croton-on-Hudson—some six miles from Peekskill—for myself, my two children, and their nurse. I was then engaged in writing an essay on the relation of literature to reality, and I felt that a month devoted to my work and the children—and away from the political turmoil which occupied so much of my life—was not only overdue but would be very good for me in every way.
In this I was not wrong. That August was a placid, cool month, with many sunny days and many pleasant hours, and for me a most welcome change. The house we had rented was a comfortable, rambling affair, set among the trees on the hillside, with a glimpse of the Hudson River from the upper windows. Mornings, I worked on my essay while the children played on the lawn. Afternoons, I was with them, and usually we spent the time swimming at a nearby pond. We had our evening meal together, and after the children were asleep I spent every night there in the house, reading or very occasionally talking with some friends who dropped in. It was, as I said, a very quiet and rewarding few weeks; my reading progressed and the essay began to near completion.
It was in the middle of this month that the phone rang one day, and when I answered it a young lady's voice asked whether I was Howard Fast, and when I said that I was, went on to ask whether I would be chairman of a concert to be given in the neighborhood in a few weeks.
"What kind of a concert?" I wanted to know.
"We give it each year."
"Who is we?" I asked her.
"People's Artists, I mean. And Pete Seeger will be there, and Paul Robeson. Do you know about People's Artists?"
I knew a good deal about People's Artists, and liked them as individuals and respected what they were trying to do as a group. Young people, by and large, they had dug up a tremendous lot of the folk song and folk tradition of America, and armed with their guitars, they were bringing it to the people everywhere, to trade unions and public meetings, to neighborhoods and settlement houses and summer resorts. They wrote new words to old melodies, and they made a continuity of the best musical tradition of America, from the time of the Revolution to the present day. It would be very hard to say no to a concert they were giving, but against that I had my absolute determination to live this month in isolated peace and quiet.
"I do know about People's Artists," I said. "But I really can't——"
"Look," she said, "I know your little girl loves to hear Paul Robeson sing, and it will be out in a lovely meadow on the picnic grounds, and it will be just like a picnic and all over by ten o'clock —and why don't you come? Won't you, please?"
There was more of this kind of thing, and finally I said that I would. She promised to write me a letter containing all details pertinent to my role at the concert, and then she hung up. It occurred to me afterwards that I had not even asked her name. A few days later the promised letter arrived, telling me that the concert would be held at Lakeland Acres Picnic Grounds a few miles north of Peekskill proper, and that I would do well to arrive at seven o'clock so that there would be time to talk over the program. The letter also noted that this would be the fourth concert given by Paul Robeson in this vicinity. The first had been held in 1946 at Mohegan Colony, a summer resort of individual home owners nearby; the second had taken place a year later at the Peekskill Stadium; and the third was held in 1948 at Crompond, another village in the immediate area.
It is worth noting that this whole area along the Hudson River, from Croton to a dozen miles north of Peekskill, has for years been a favored summer vacation place for thousands of workers in the needle trades. They have built colonies and inter-racial camps, and they have made it possible for Negroes to get away from their city ghetto, and to live in peace and comfort for a few weeks during the summer. The workers built their houses with love and care and consideration, and these summer colonies nestle among the low hills and in the sheltered valleys, blending with the natural beauty of the countryside. Peekskill is the only town of any size thereabouts, and it is less an industrial center than a lower middle class shopping hub, a conglomeration of stores, filling stations, poolrooms, lunch counters and real estate offices, a backwash of a city, a festering shrinking forgotten city, a onetime prosperous riverboat station now left behind and by-passed by the rush of American industrial development.
So in this way, just as haphazardly as this, I was drawn into the Peekskill affair. I had no notion of what would happen, and because I had no notion, I decided that I would take my little girl, Rachel, with me to hear Paul Robeson sing. I looked forward to a delightful and rewarding evening. Having made that decision, I went back to my work, giving the business no further thought until the Saturday morning of August 27 drew around.
On that morning, J—— N——, an old friend of mine, one time editor of New Masses and now a feature writer on the New York Daily Worker, phoned and asked me whether I was going to take my daughter with me. I said that I intended to, and he suggested that we go together. He lived then about a quarter of a mile from the house I had rented, and he said he would stop by for me. When I hung up the phone I discovered that Mrs. M——, the children's nurse, had overheard me. A motherly, and very wise Negro woman, she could be very firm at times; this was one of them.
"I would not take Rachel," she said.
"I just wouldn't."
"Why not? She loves Paul—and to hear him sing in the open like this will be a thing she'll always remember. I think it's important that she should come with me."
"I think it's important that she should not," said Mrs. M——.
"Maybe because I'm a Negro and you're white."
"What on earth," I wanted to know, "has that got to do with it?"
"Just don't take Rachel," she said firmly—and then I gave it up.
"All right, I won't," I told her. "But if you think that anything is going to happen, you're wrong. Nothing is going to happen."
That was in the morning. At noontime I was sitting on the lawn, watching my small son tumble in and out of a plastic wading pool, when a car drove up and two men, one a Negro, one white, got out. They introduced themselves to me. The Negro was a member of People's Artists, the white man a community leader.
"I thought it might help to have a talk with you before the concert," the Negro said. "Of course, you know what's going on?"
"Going on? How do you mean that?"
"In Peekskill," he said. "Haven't you seen the Peekskill papers?"
"As a matter of fact, I haven't. I haven't even seen a New York paper in the past few days."
"Then it's a good thing we have a chance to talk with you, because it seems there's going to be trouble."
I didn't believe it. A month in the country, a month of the kind of quiet life I had been leading made me doubt that there was trouble anywhere—and if there was trouble, it wouldn't be here, not here in these quiet valleys. And why should anyone make trouble? This was not a political meeting or demonstration, but a concert to be held in the picnic grounds on a summer evening. Trouble didn't start that way. I said as much.
"Then you're wrong, Brother Fast," they told me. "You're wrong as hell."
"I don't think I'm wrong."
"Then listen to this." And the Negro read to me:
"It appears that Peekskill is to be treated to another concert visit by Paul Robeson, renowned Negro baritone. Time was when the honor would have been ours—all ours. As things stand today, like most folks who put America first, we're a little doubtful of that honor...."
More of the same. "Now this," he said, "now listen to this":
"The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out." He added, "That's from the Peekskill Evening Star of last Tuesday. Since then, they've worked themselves into a lather over this thing. The American Legion is going to march, and the local boys have been liquoring themselves up since this morning. On the other hand, some of the local residents have sent a telegram of protest to the DA, Fannelli, asking him to have plenty of cops and state troopers on hand, just in case. Maybe he will and maybe he won't. The point is, you've got to keep your eyes open."
I would keep my eyes open. At the same time, I had heard this kind of threat of violence for years on occasion after occasion, and I had discovered that the gentlemen of violence, while they talk a good deal, are far more conservative in putting it into play.
"I don't think anything will happen—I just don't think so."
They would see me about seven-thirty, they said. (But no one on the side of good-will came to the picnic grounds at seven-thirty that evening, as you will see.) They left half a dozen copies of The Peekskill Evening Star with me, and after they had gone I thumbed through the papers, reading here and there bits of the stupid, sometimes pathological hatred and bias that sprinkled its pages so liberally. There were threats of violence, and then disavowals of violence; there were the clumsy, poorly-composed barbs of anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism. Here, microcosmically, this dull, tawdry little journal was repeating and vaunting all the pompous phrases of post-war anti-Communism, anti-humanism. Their efforts to wrap the filth in a high-toned package became ludicrous —but no more ludicrous than the efforts of their esteemed contemporaries on the great New York City journals. As witness:
"It is unfortunate that some of the weaker-minded are susceptible to their fallacious teachings unless something is done by the loyal Americans of this area. Quite a few years ago a similar organization, the Ku Klux Klan, appeared in Verplanck [a village nearby] and received their just reward. Needless to say, they have never returned. I am not intimating violence in this case but I believe we should give this matter serious consideration and strive to find a remedy that will cope with the situation the same way as Verplanck and with the same result that they will never reappear in this area...."
Thus from The Peekskill Evening Star, and more and more of the same. It would require a Mark Twain to do critical justice to such highly original use of the English language, and thinking of that I began to lose some of my sun-nurtured security. Here was a monstrous and sanctimonious piece of ignorance from a group of people who had enshrined ignorance as a God worthy to share the temple with the dollar sign.
This uneasiness resulted in a decision to take no chances on not gaining entrance to the picnic grounds. Even if part of the audience did not arrive, the chairman, at least, should be there. I would leave, therefore, at six-thirty. It could not possibly take more than twenty minutes to drive to the picnic grounds. I had no car of my own, but had rented for the month a 1940 Plymouth four-door, an old but responsive automobile which played no inconsiderable part in my adventures of the coming week.
Before I left, I told Mrs. M——that I might be rather late, since one couldn't count on the regular schedule. When J—— N—— comes," I said to her, "tell him I've gone on ahead. I'll see him there."CHAPTER 2
The Night of Terror
THAT GOLDEN EVENING of August 27 remains in my mind most clearly, most softly; it was such a soft and gentle evening as one finds on the canvas of George Inness, and even he could create that dewy nostalgia only when he painted one part or another of the wonderful Hudson River Valley. By choice, I took the little back roads twisting among the low hills and narrow valleys. I avoided the business section of Peekskill, but found the state highway north of the town. I had never been to the Lakeland Picnic Grounds before, and I drove slowly, looking for the entrance—which is on Division Street, a three-mile stretch of country road which connects Peekskill with the Bronx River Parkway.
Yet I couldn't have missed the entrance. Hundreds of yards before I reached it I found cars parked solidly on either side of the highway, which made me wonder since it was more than an hour before the concert was scheduled to begin; and at the entrance itself there was an already unruly crowd of men. Still, they didn't try to stop me, but only jeered and thumbed their noses at me as I turned left into the picnic grounds. Only one more car was permitted to enter after mine; then the entrance was sealed off.
Just inside the grounds I stopped my car. There, a few yards from the read, a handful of teen-age boys and girls had gathered.
There were not more than five of them and they were trying to hide their nervousness at the jeering, hooting crowd on the road. They had come up from New York to be ushers at the concert. I told them who I was and they seemed glad that I was there, but they were still frightened.
"What shall we do?" they asked.
"Who's running things?"
They didn't know, they said. It was so early—they didn't think anyone had come yet. But maybe there was someone down below.
"Well," I told them, "don't let anyone in who isn't here for the concert. Just keep cool and be calm and nothing will happen." That seemed to be a refrain of mine, that nothing would happen, that nothing could happen. "I'll park my car and see if I can't find someone to take things in hand."
To understand what happened from here on, you must have in your mind a clear picture of Lakeland Picnic Grounds and of the area where the concert was set up. The entrance to the grounds is a left turn off the main road as you drive from Peekskill; the entrance is double, coming together in Y shape to a narrow dirt road. About eighty feet from the entrance the road is embanked, with sharp dirt sides dropping about twenty feet to shallow pools of water. About forty feet of the road is embanked in this fashion, and then for a quarter of a mile or so it sweeps down into a valley —all of this private road and a part of the picnic grounds. At the end of this road, there is a sheltered hollow with a broad, meadow-grass bottom, a sort of natural arena, hidden by hummocks of low hills from the sight of anyone on the public highway. It was in this hollow that the paraphernalia for the concert had been set up: a large platform, two thousand wooden folding chairs, and a number of spotlights powered by a portable generator.
I looked at my watch before I drove down to the hollow, and it was just ten minutes to seven. Parking my car against a clump of trees to the side of the platform, I got out and wandered around rather aimlessly. The platform was ready, the chairs set up, the spotlights in place, and there was a long picnic table piled with song-books and pamphlets. As I came in, a large bus had just discharged its passengers, boys and girls, Negroes for the most part, who had come early to be ushers. The bus lurched around and departed in a cloud of dust; the boys and girls drifted across the meadow, walking slowly and contentedly in the golden light of the evening. About a hundred and twenty other people were already on the scene, most of them women and small children, and they top were making a picnic afternoon of it before the concert began, some of them sprawling comfortably on the grass, some of them at the rustic tables, some sitting on the chairs. A party of boys and girls from Golden's Bridge, a summer colony, sat on the platform, their legs dangling. None of them were much over fifteen; most of them were much younger. A few of these people had come by car; many had walked to the picnic grounds from summer homes nearby. The children from Golden's Bridge had come down in a large truck which was parked now next to my car—and which was destined to play an interesting role that night. Just by the good grace of fortune, half a dozen merchant seamen who were vacationing in the neighborhood had decided to come early; I had good reason to be grateful for them and for four other trade unionists who happened to be present.
But none of these, I discovered, knew who was in charge of the concert—and as it turned out those in charge never reached the picnic grounds. I inquired for a while, then I gave it up and perched myself on one of the tables and settled down to wait. k was seven o'clock now, and from where we were in the hollow there was no sign of trouble.
Excerpted from Peekskill USA by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1951 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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