A Brief History
On September 4, 1949, after a concert by African American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, riots broke out in the Peekskill, New York location of the concert. World famous for singing, acting, and as a Civil Rights and Trade Union activist, Robeson became the target of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacists.
Paul Robeson was a remarkable man, born in New Jersey in 1898, a time of Jim Crow Laws and segregation, in the state of Woodrow Wilson, a man we now know as a racist. Robeson’s mother was of mixed heritage, African, English, and Native American, while Robeson’s father was born a slave in North Carolina, escaping to the North and freedom in 1860.
In spite of his mother dying while Paul was young, and being in a family of meager means, Robeson excelled at sports and academics at school and won a scholarship to Rutgers. The only Black student at Rutgers at the time (only 2 students of African descent had preceded him there), Paul became a football star, joined the Debate Team, sang with the Glee Club and sang off campus. He later joined other sports teams and college associations, and became an All-American at football, later to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. More importantly, Robeson was elected class Valedictorian by his classmates.
During his time at Rutgers, the US became involved in World War I, and Robeson noted the inconsistency with an expectation that African Americans should fight in and support a war for a country that did not give African Americans (and others) full rights and opportunities. Paul continued his education at the New York University School of Law, but transferred to Columbia where he graduated in 1922, getting married and starting an acting career along the way. Paul also became an NFL football player for the Akron Pros and the Milwaukee Badgers, though he only played until 1922.
In spite of now being a lawyer and being a star pro football player, Paul turned toward singing and acting, skills that brought him national and international fame on the stage, screen, and recordings. His booming bass voice was wonderful. Perhaps his signature role was in the play and movie, Showboat (1936) in which he sings the definitive version of “Old Man River.” Paul did dally with the ladies, leading to a divorce and a brief new marriage to a White woman in 1932, but that marriage quickly ended and Paul remarried his first wife.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s Robeson became politically aware, and chafed under the discrimination against Blacks in the United States. His travels overseas showed him such racism was not universal, and a trip to the Soviet Union with Anti-Imperialist British friends broadened his horizons. Paul furthered his education in London, learning about his African ancestry and studying African languages. At the same time that Paul became a movie star, he became increasingly politically conscious, supporting causes of working people, trade unions, and oppressed minorities. Robeson even petitioned Major League Baseball to allow Blacks to play in the Majors. This activism was sure to cause him grief, and it did, at the hands of the US government, being placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations after World War II, although he had conducted fund raisers to benefit the US war effort. Attention from the House Un-American Committee followed, and Paul became a pariah among racist White Americans.
By the time of the Peekskill concert that was followed by riots, Robeson had become a famous voice for African Americans and Working People, and was libelously portrayed in the American media as anti-American. The Robeson concert of September 4, 1949, was to be a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, and was a rescheduling of an August 27 concert that was preempted by attacks from the KKK and White Supremacists. The KKK garnered 748 new recruits from the Peekskill area after the violence of August 27. The September 4th concert went off without interruption, but the concert goers and performers (including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie) were attacked as they left the concert grounds. World War I combat pilot Eugene Bullard, the first African American combat pilot to fly for the US military, was filmed being beaten by Whites, including White police.
Reaction to the Peekskill Riots was predictably mixed, with Southern Congressmen denouncing Robeson as an agitator (“rabble rouser” was a common term during the Civil Rights Movement) and decrying the concert goers as the violent side of the riot. Northern lawmakers and commentators had a contrary view, bemoaning the lack of respect for the rights of African Americans and their supporters.
Controversy over the Peekskill Riots ruined Robeson’s career as a performer, getting him blacklisted by the White media and entertainment industry. With the end of McCarthyism, Robeson was somewhat “rehabilitated” and resumed his entertainment career, although he had never stopped his Civil Rights activities. Residual hatred of Robeson by critics made his career resumption largely an overseas proposition, and he even suffered misinformation slander from the State Department meant to undermine his influence in foreign countries!
Robeson suffered from depression and panic attacks from 1961 to 1963, and was unsuccessfully treated in Europe at a variety of institutions. Paul returned to the US in 1963, and after a brief resumption of Civil Rights activity, his failing health led him to permanent retirement and seclusion, until his death in 1976 from a stroke. Among his pallbearers were Harry Belafonte and Fritz Pollard (the first African American coach in the NFL).
Robeson is remembered in the many movies and recording he made, and appeared on a US postage stamp. He is in the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and has a library (main campus) and common area (Newark) named for him at Rutgers. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Robeson has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. Even a Latvian oil tanker ship is named in his honor! Paul Robeson was quite the remarkable person, highly talented in singing and acting, exceedingly intelligent academically, and courageous in his social convictions. If you are unfamiliar with this amazing American, we encourage you to read more about him and check out some of his performances on YouTube.
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For more information, please see…
Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. Beacon Press, 1998.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Paul Robeson, world famous Negro baritone, leading Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA workers in singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” here at their lunch hour recently in September 1942, after he told them, “This is a serious job—winning this war against fascists,” is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 535874. This image is a work of the United States Department of the Treasury, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.