Peekskill USA: Inside the Infamous 1949 Riots

BOOK: Peekskill USA: Inside the Infamous 1949 Riots
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Peekskill USA

Inside the Infamous 1949 Riots

Howard Fast

To Paul Robeson

Preface

FROM AUGUST 24 TO SEPTEMBER
4, 1949, I took part in a very strange and somewhat terrible incident, which has already become an important part of the postwar history of the United States. For many generations to come, the
Peeskill Affair
will be recalled and discussed, and it will remain for historians, with their broader and more complete point of view, to decide the final import and significance of this incident.

For myself, close as I am to it, I still see it in somewhat subjective terms. It was the first great open manifestation of American fascism; but whether it was part of some preconceived plan or test, or simply the culmination of events in preparation for the times we live in, I do not know. Only time can answer this and many other questions connected with Peekskill.

My own personal participation was something of an accident initially, although far from an accident as the series of events around the incident unfolded. It is not often the good fortune—or fate—of a writer to be so closely involved with events which must be written about. When it does happen, if the writer is a trained observer, the possibility of good prose description does exist, and this can be most valuable. Because I believe this, I offer this account of the eight days of Peekskill. I do not, however, put it forth either as a social study of the incident or as a complete factual itemization. For the most part, I tell only what happened immediately around me—what I saw with my own eyes. Where I go beyond that, I do so for the sake of continuity in dramatic terms, and where I draw conclusions, they are my own conclusions, based for the most part on my own experience.

I would like to state that I am most interested in presenting a truthful picture—again, within the limits of my observation and information. We live in times when any statement of the left is greeted with suspicion if not with outright condemnation by the forces of the right; and since the bulk of the sources of public information are firmly in the hands of American reaction, it can hardly be expected that this account will be welcomed by them as an objective statement of what happened at Peekskill. As a matter of fact, I have never pretended to any sort of Olympian
objectivity.
My position, for many years, has been a partisan one, and I have never made any secret of that. At Peekskill, I could hardly be objective; objectivity is not for those who are fighting for their lives. I was partisan then; I am still partisan.

Yet I think that partisanship does not hinder, but rather helps toward the truth. An enormous body of written matter already exists on the
Peekskill Affair;
this is available to scholars, and it is not my intention to present a collation of this material. It is my intention to tell the story as I saw it.

In answer to those who may wonder why I waited so long before sitting down to this job, I can only answer that some degree of perspective is necessary to a coherent account of such a matter as this. Also, I was occupied with other writing tasks, and then interrupted by the Federal Government, which decided that I had to serve a three month prison sentence—as a lesson and a warning to others who might consider a police state an intolerable condition of things.

It was while I was in prison that I heard that the Westchester County Grand Jury, which had been sitting on the Peekskill case for many months, had finally brought in two indictments; and I recall tense days of waiting to hear whether—as it had been rumored —Paul Robeson and I would be the subject of these indictments. When I learned that we would not, I was both relieved and puzzled, for
frameup
, or, as the lawyers call it,
entrapment
, had been the pattern of this Peekskill business from beginning to end. At the same time, I do not delude myself into thinking that the last chapter to the
Peekskill Affair
has been written.

Part One

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.

“Why?”

“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——.

“Why?”

“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”:

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