Days of ’49: Remembering Peekskill

Tayo Aluko · Paul Robeson’s Love Song (trailer)

A new radio play by Tayo Aluko based on events surrounding Paul Robeson’s concert in Peekskill, New York in 1949, and the racist, anti-communist riots that came before and after it, drops on Paul Robeson’s birthday — April 9th — and it seems more timely than ever.

One of the artistic projects I’ve been involved with as a minor participant since early autumn is a radio play.  It’s a fictional depiction of real historical events, and as I read the play, participated in the online rehearsals and recording sessions with the playwright, the director, and the other actors involved, the history we were bringing to life seemed to be getting more and more relevant by the day.

If I weren’t paying close attention, it would be easy to dissociate and forget what time zone I was in.  Racist, anti-Semitic mobs laying siege to an event, attacking participants indiscriminately as police were completely absent, or stood by and did nothing.

Their explicit aim was to lynch someone — musician, activist, athlete, linguist, and African-American, Paul Robeson.  Though they failed in this effort, they injured many people, and destroyed a lot of property in the form of cars and buses as people were trying to leave town — succeeding in the latter efforts particularly because of the active cooperation of the local authorities in directing traffic their way, down narrow roads.  They succeeded in creating an atmosphere of terror that resulted in events being canceled across the country soon afterwards, among many other consequences.

The mob was not only protected by the police, but they were very actively encouraged by the local press, which had a familiar, one-sided orientation — if you didn’t believe in capitalism, you were a communist, the enemy within, out to take away our freedom and prosperity.

And it wasn’t just the local press.  Although it may not have been necessary to lie in order to make people look bad, the most incendiary claims that motivated the mob to act as they did were fabricated from whole cloth, with parts of a speech that soon became globally infamous being sent across the wires before the speech was delivered — and inaccurately.

But it wasn’t just the right wing, racist, anti-Semitic mobs motivated by ideologues, assisted by fake news put out by some combination of press outlets and politicians, with the active collusion of the local police, laying siege to established, annual, local events that seemed so familiar.  There were so many other things.

While it was a prosperous period for many, for many others it wasn’t.  Especially for those struggling to find a job after so many industries were in transition in the years following the Second World War — in Peekskill, New York, and across the country.

Before Westchester County became the extremely wealthy New York City suburb that it is today, it was the nearest rural area north of New York City where people from the big city could have weekend and summer getaways.  Before it was that, it was a river valley dotted with factory towns and farms.

That combination of radical ideologues with control over huge propaganda machines, spouting lies, egging on mobs to create an atmosphere of terror, in the context of rapid societal transformation, with so many people sacrificing so much to live such precarious lives, is not a new one.  And it is a combination that has caused so much damage in the past.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers for salvaging this society, but I’m sure wherever those answers lie, they must probably involve first understanding what led to the events of August and September, 1949, in Peekskill, New York.

•  Tayo Aluko’s radio play about the Peekskill Riots, Paul Robeson’s Love Song, drops on Paul Robeson’s birthday, on April 9th, 2021.  More info about the launch will be up on Tayo’s website soon.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.