When my father came home from work and said we were going to a concert I was thrilled. It was to take place upstate along the Hudson River in a town called Peekskill. To get out of our stuffy Brooklyn apartment at the end of summer was heaven-sent. I didn’t know dark times were swirling around us.
“You’re going to love the concert David. Paul Robeson is going to sing,” said my father.
“Are you sure Frank? You saw what happened the other night,” said my mother.
“It will be fine. More of us will be there and we can’t let them get away with this can we? After all this is America,” he said.
I, of course, did not know what they were talking about. For a boy of 14 the biggest issue for me was whether the Brooklyn Dodgers were going to play the Yankees in the 1949 World Series.
Mom was getting supper ready while my father was cleaning up after his long day at the shirt factory.
My father isn’t usually an animated guy, unless he is on a picket line or at one of his union meetings. He was awful quiet when he came back from the war. I used to hear him and some of his buddies talking in the kitchen late at night. Places like the “bulge” and something about camps they found. Generally they got pretty drunk when they talked about such things.
Sitting at the kitchen table for supper, father would invariably ask how I spent my day.
“We just hung out and played a little stickball or sat on the stoop. It was too hot,” I said, knowing that it sounded like I was just being lazy.
“Playing stickball is good. It keeps you fit and you learn to play on a team, but I want you to spend some time reading every day. Gotta’ have a strong mind in this world too,” he said.
“Don’t expect him to be reading Das Capital just yet Frank,” my mom said with a grin.
Once the sermon was over and not knowing what the heck Das Capital was, the small talk and eating commenced…thankfully.
After we cleaned up the table and I helped mom with the dishes, my father and I went to the living room to listen to the radio. It was a floor model Zenith with a big black dial that my parents got before the war. After my father left for the Army, mom would listen to the war news on it. I would listen to the Green Hornet fight Nazi spies.
He turned on the radio, the dial light lit up, and the tubes inside warmed up with a soft yellow glow.
“Well, let’s listen to the news first,” he said.
He turned the dial to WCBS just in time for the news. As we listened the announcer spoke.
“The concert in Peekskill on August 24th turned into a riot as American Legion members and other concerned citizens voiced their disapproval of a concert by Paul Robeson and sponsored by various red organizations”…………………
“Reds,” my father spit out. “What does he know? They attacked our people,” said my father visibly angry. “Capitalist mouthpiece,” my father mumbled.
“Don’t get upset right after eating Frank,” warned my mother.
“I know Annie but…”
The knock on the door put a damper on further argument.
My father opened the door. It was his friend and co-worker from the shop, Abe Cohen.
“Hi Abe, what brings you around?”
“Hi Frank, well it’s like this, Sophie doesn’t want to take the little one to the concert after what happened. I hoped I could ride with you. I will even help with the gas money,” said Abe.
“Sure Abe that will be OK. It will be good to have someone else along,” said father. “OK with you Annie?”
“Sure Frank,” mom said.
“Glad to have you come with us Abe,” mom said with a smile.
“I will see you at the union meeting Frank. Sounds like a lot of us are going to the concert. Other unions and organizations too,” said Abe. “They can’t stop us… can they Frank?” asked Abe with a little apprehension in his voice.
“Not if we stick together,” said my father.
The day of the concert we all piled into my father’s 1939 Buick for the long ride north to Peekskill. Father and mom sat in the front while Mr. Cohen and I sat in the back. We rolled the window down, leaving the city heat behind.
“So David, your father says this is the first time you’ve heard Paul Robeson sing in concert,” said Abe.
“That’s right Mr. Cohen, but I have heard him on the radio. We would listen to him on Ballads for Americans. I heard him sing ‘Old Man River’ once,” I said.
“Yes, that was before he became un-American to some,” Abe said with contempt.
“I don’t understand Mr. Cohen.”
My father broke off his conversation with mom and said, “It’s like this David, Paul Robeson not only fights for the Negro, he fights for trade unions and has remained a true friend to the Soviet Union even after they were no longer considered our ally. He even told Truman to pass an anti-lynching law, which got him thrown out of the White House, right Abe,” said father.
“That and everything else has gotten him on the blacklist with the FBI, which means big trouble David. The newspapers have turned against him and have whipped up groups like the American Legion. Now anyone who even says a good thing about him or the Soviet Union is suspected of being Un-American,” said Mr. Cohen.
The long ride continued and I wondered why someone like Paul Robeson would be in so much trouble.
As we got there I saw the crowds forming and cars pulled off to the side. I thought it was nice that so many had come to hear Paul Robeson sing. It wasn’t until we were driving through the crowd that I found that I was horribly mistaken. These weren’t friends of my father’s. They weren’t friends of Mr. Cohen. They weren’t friends at all.
As we followed other cars off the road to the meadow where the concert was to take place I could hear the crowd shout at us, faces contorted with rage as we drove through. The police were there, but they were grinning at us and had their arms folded.
“Go back to Russia!” one guy yelled. Others yelled things that would get my face slapped if I said them.
I’m not Russian. What is he talking about, I thought.
The concert area was filled with cars and buses. The sound-stage was simply a flatbed truck parked under an Oak tree. Thousands of people either sat on the ground or in folding chairs. Union banners were fitted to poles. It was a mix of races, what my father always called the ‘brotherhood of man”. The hills created a bowl that amplified the sound and chatter of the people. Surrounding the people was a circle of men. The unions had sent them to form a perimeter to hold back the crowd made up of American Legionnaires, local townspeople and thugs.
Father, spotting someone he knew, yelled “Hey Sam, what’s up?”
“Hi Frank. This time we got our own security. At least 2500 guys from the garment workers, electrical workers and the docks. Last time a lot of our people got hurt and the cops did nothing but watch,” said Sam.
“Well, that’s good. The crowd up there seems to be pretty hostile. Looks like the Legion stirred them up pretty good,” said father.
“That they did, Frank. Sad part is many of us down here are veterans too.”
We found a spot among others in the meadow as applause broke out. Climbing up on the sound-stage flashing a big smile was Paul Robeson. He wore a black coat with grey pants. There were 15 bodyguards around the sound-stage.
Looking out over the crowd he began to sing: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go…”
Behind me and up on the hill a murmuring was growing louder, like angry bees waiting to sting.
The concert was filled with performers like Pete Seeger, playing his banjo and singing folk songs. He reminded people that this was New York State not Alabama and to remain calm.
When it came time to leave I could tell the adults were nervous. The crowd that jeered at us on the way in had grown. Many had a bottle of beer in one hand and a rock in the other.
We got into the car and my father said, “OK, we can get through this. The police won’t let them do anything stupid this time.”
“Ever the optimist, right Frank,” said Abe uneasily.
“I know it will be hot, but roll up the windows. Ready Annie?” said father looking over at mom.
As the line of cars and buses began to move the dust kicked up and made it hard to see. We pulled in behind a bus filled with school kids from Harlem, which blocked some of our vision as well.
It seemed like we were crawling along as we reached the gate. Turning past the gate we could see why. The police had left only one way out and a cordon of cars and people was slowing everything down. And as the cars slowed down the mob attacked.
It sounded at first like hammers on metal. Then we knew. We heard the screams and the shouts.
On both sides of the road there were hundreds and hundreds of people. They were throwing rocks at our cars and buses. Windows were shattered. People were bleeding. Children were screaming. Men were fighting to get their cars and families through to safety, pleading with police through shattered windows for help to no avail. The police had joined the mob.
The bus of school kids from Harlem in front of us was next in line to meet the wrath of the mob. Shouts of “niggers!” filled the air. The windows of the bus were shattered as rocks found their targets. The kids dove under their seats screaming and holding their hands to bloody heads.
Then it was our turn. My father yelled “everyone down!” as rocks hit our windows. I was on the floor board with Mr. Cohen shielding me. Glass was everywhere. Mom was huddled down under the dash as father made his way through the gauntlet. A rock smashed in his window and he was bleeding from his nose and forehead. Legionnaires, doing their “patriotic duty” pounded their fists on cars filled with scared families.
“Out of the way you goddamn fascists,” father yelled, his voice choked with rage.
As we drove on I could hear more shouts of “commies go back to Russia!” from the mob.
“David, are you and Abe OK?” mom asked in a trembling voice.
“We’re OK, aren’t we David,” Mr. Cohen said as he brushed shards of glass out his hair.
My father said later that the mob had even pulled people out of their cars and beat them up. He said the mob had piles of rocks on the side of the road waiting for us to come through and the police did nothing.
I don’t know how father did it. Our procession of battered and bruised drove past houses flying the American flag with the people along route 9 still throwing rocks at us. I wanted to get out and kill someone for what they did to us.
We finally got back to Brooklyn, our little corner of America. I gave Mr. Cohen a big hug as he left for his apartment. We looked a mess. Mostly dusty and dirty except for father who needed some first aid on his face and a shot of whiskey.
Father went to an emergency union meeting the next day to discuss what happened at the concert.
It was late when he got home but I wanted to stay up and find out what happened to others. All I knew was from the floorboard of a Buick.
Father came in looking tired, the cuts on his face still fresh. He sat in his chair near the Zenith. “Hey David, grab me a Rheingold will ya,” he said.
Mom came in, I handed father his beer and we sat down to hear what he had to say.
“Well, as can be expected, every car and bus was damaged. 150 people were seriously injured. The emergency rooms from Peekskill to here were flooded with our people. Pete Seeger had his family and Woody Guthrie in his car. They are OK. Paul Robeson is OK too. They hid him under a blanket. We had 25,000 people at the concert. All had to go through the mob because the police,
the FBI and the American legion planned it that way. One way out only. Eugene Bullard, who came to hear Paul sing and is the first decorated Negro combat pilot in the First World War was beat up by State troopers,” reported my father.
“And get this, the local newspapers up there said we “provoked” the mob,” my father said laughing cynically.
I could tell that my father was worn out from the past few days.
“Why don’t we listen to the radio, maybe we can find Paul Robeson singing?” I said, hoping to cheer him up.
“Now who is the optimist,” he said, his hard face turning to a grin.
“You never know,” I said, turning on the Zenith, the tubes warming up to their familiar yellow glow pushing the darkness away.
Zenith Radio – Attribute :- By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons