Paul Robeson, the great African American concert singer, actor, athlete, and lawyer, was scheduled to sing at a concert in August 1949 in Van Cortlandtville. Although he had sung in the Peekskill area before without incident, by 1949 tensions were simmering over race issues and the fear of Russian communism. Many of Robeson’s sponsors and backers--in fact, Robeson himself--were by that time considered pro-communist.
Several veterans’ groups (mostly white) decided to demonstrate against the groups they considered subversive. It was said that on the day of the concert a navy veteran was stabbed in his side by a “Negro.” This supposed incident set off three hours of rioting in which 150 people were injured. Robeson never sang, and his sponsors rescheduled the concert for September 4.
At the second concert, where Robeson did sing, rioting again broke out despite the presence of 900 policemen who were there to prevent a replay of the violence at the previous concert. The veterans’ groups surged into the crowd and pandemonium ensued.
Following the second riot, Governor Thomas Dewey called on the Westchester County District Attorney to impanel a Grand Jury investigation into both riots. From Governor Dewey’s statement it is clear he sided with the veterans’ groups, or at least with their assessment of the alleged subversive groups that were involved. Shown here are various photographs of the two incidents and the full text of the Presentment of the Grand Jury on the Peekskill Incidents, October 1949.