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Sun, 09.04.1949

The Peekskill, N.Y. Riot Occurs

*The Peekskill riot occurred on this date in 1949. This was an incident of hate-filled racial slurs and insults from angry white-Americans from Westchester County, New York, towards Blacks.

They directed their rage at the carloads of concert-goers arriving to hear the singer Paul Robeson perform at an open-air concert in Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill. State troopers did nothing. The first attempt to hold the concert, in aid of the Civil Rights Congress, on August 27th had to be called off when the audience was attacked, Robeson was lynched in effigy, and a cross was set on fire. The police did little to intervene, and 300 hostile white veterans made their presence felt. The first Black combat pilot and decorated World War I veteran, Eugene Bullard, was knocked to the ground and beaten by the mob, which included white members of state and local law enforcement. One car carried Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and his family to safety.

Anti-Communist members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters also caused much violence. The angry mob of rioters chanted, "Go on back to Russia, you niggers" and "White niggers."  In opposition, some concertgoers, union members, writer Howard Fast, and others assembled a non-violent line of resistance, locked arms, and sang the song "We Shall Not Be Moved." Some people were reportedly dragged from their vehicles and beaten. Over 140 people were injured, and numerous vehicles were severely damaged as police stood by.

A week later, on September 12, 1949, in response to Robeson's controversial status in the press and leftist affiliations, the National Maritime Union convention considered a motion that Robeson's name be removed from the union’s honorary membership list; the motion was withdrawn for lack of support among members. Later that month, the All-China Art and Literature Workers’ Association and All-China Association of Musicians of Liberated China protested the Peekskill attack on Robeson. On October 2, 1949, Robeson spoke at a luncheon for the National Labor Conference for Peace, Ashland Auditorium, Chicago, and referenced the riots.

In recent years, Westchester County has gone to great lengths to make amends to the survivors of the riots by holding a commemorative ceremony, at which an apology was made for their treatment. In September 1999, county officials held a "Remembrance and Reconciliation Ceremony, the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the 1949 Peekskill riots." It included speakers Paul Robeson, Jr., folk singer Peter Seeger, and several local elected officials.

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