Hudson Valley’s Riotous Nature Has Been a Quiet Pathway For Well-Reasoned Foment
August 1949: The great American actor and baritone Paul Robeson was set to perform outdoors in Peekskill. He’d performed in the area three times before, and had appeared at a World Peace Conference in Paris just three months earlier.
“We in America do not forget that it was the backs of white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of blacks that the wealth of America was built, and we are resolved to share it equally,” he said there, from the stage. “We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong…We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the People’s Republics.”
Unfortunately, Robeson’s message got garbled by the Associated Press before it reached America, coming out as, “We colonial peoples have contributed to the building of the United States and are determined to share its wealth. We denounce the policy of the United States government, which is similar to Hitler and Goebbels….It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union, which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.”
What resulted was a Black Lives Matter moment long before Civil Rights became a front page movement, before the tumult of the late 1960s, before Rodney King and Trayvon Martin, before Ferguson, Minneapolis, and Atlanta.
A mob attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks, hung Robeson in effigy, and burnt a cross on a nearby hillside. The local police arrived hours later and did little to intervene. Seven Hundred Forty-Eight people applied for Ku Klux Klan membership in the following week around the Westchester County town and a second concert was set for the Labor Day weekend, with union members set to serve as a wall of defense this time. Twenty thousand people showed up and, except for a police helicopter hovering over the concert, things went off well, including a performance by nearby resident Pete Seeger and his friend Woody Guthrie.
On the way out of town, veterans and KKK members created a gauntlet several miles long, throwing rocks and words of hate. The first black combat pilot and decorated World War I veteran Eugene Bullard was pulled from his vehicle, knocked to the ground, and beaten by the mob, which included white members of state and local law enforcement.
Despite the fact that much of this riot was filmed, Governor Thomas Dewey refused to look into what happened, saying it was the result of Communist provocateurs. A civil lawsuit against Westchester County and two veterans groups was tossed out of court. A floor fight in Congress saw the N-word screamed across the House floor, without protest. Paul Robeson, now on our nation’s stamps, was denounced.
Consider it an American rubicon only now making it into common history as a key to our nation’s troubled soul, as well as the long storm that’s characterized the Hudson Valley’s four century role as a center for independence and that independence’s throttling.
History books speak of a gentler settlement than other colonies, by first the Dutch and then the English. Yet Native American resistance was fierce. Eventually, colonists’ wish and will to be independent of a mother country half a world away led to ever-increasing organization towards independence, such as the 1760s Sons of Liberty, and eventually a 1765 Stamp Act Congress that resulted in a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. And a 1775 Coxsackie Declaration of Independence. Roughly one-third of all American Revolution battles took place in the state.
According to Thomas Humphrey’s Land and Liberty, a series of riots rippled through the Hudson Valley starting in the 1750s. Tenants rose in protest against landlords who not only collectively controlled 2.5 million acres of the best soil, but who also, in many cases, owned the local stores where tenants bought supplies, and the mills where they ground their grain.
Eventually, these anti-inequality sentiments saw a more dramatic manifestation a half-century after the formation of the nation, in the form of the anti-rent wars of the upper Hudson Valley, Catskills, and highlands around Albany, when rioters dressed as “calico Indians” to avoid arrest and persecution, but faced both…and then a shift in land ownership and rental laws.
Concurrently, local abolitionist fervor ebbed and flowed through a region known to outsiders as a hotbed for Underground Railroad activity, but within the region as still a land of slavery, into the 19th century, and various levels of indentured servitude long after. This extended into suffragacy, albeit without the fervor further Upstate and out in the Rochester area. But also to a stubborn push towards idiosyncratic spirituality that beget the region’s nickname, particularly along its western borders, as a “burnt-over district” for the flames of religiosity that came and went as believers searched for spaces where they could be as they wished.
Labor? There were riots in a few of the bigger cities, but never as great as in the huge industrialized cities to the north and west. Immigrant and anti-immigrant riots? They’d occur with frequency, but not the sorts of hugeness that rocked other parts of the country.
Yet tension settled in for years, ripe for riots such as that which met Paul Robeson, or would occasionally surface around the construction camps during the great New York City reservoir system’s building.
Fast forward to the foment of the 1960s, via the Civil Rights movement, college unrest, the explosion of anti-war sentiment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and later awareness of expanding riots and today’s Black Lives Matter actions.
While most Civil Rights activities took place in the south, many leading activists came from the Hudson Valley. Moreover, one of the last and most volatile of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizing meetings, in late 1966, was held at the Peg Leg Bates Resort in Kerhonkson (where a decision was reached to expel the organization’s white membership). In terms of riots, the only real actions involved a group called The Brothers’ late 1960s actions to achieve racial equality within their city; and a few actions in Beacon and Newburgh involving Black Panther offshoots.
In terms of student actions, the closest things to riot were a Students for a Democratic Society national meeting in Pine Hill in 1963 where organizational president Tom Hayden pushed a more radical anti-war agenda, some SUNY protests that led to campus changes in New Paltz and Albany (where architectural features were incorporated that would work against rioting), and finally the Catskills became a runaway home for former Weathermen and other leftist radicals on the run from our federal government.
Yes, the region hosted the original 1969 Woodstock Festival, designed to show the nation what a younger utopia could look like, and spawned a wealth of communal and back-to-the-earth living experiments deep into the 1970s and 1980s.
More recently, major marches and occasional riots showed the growing spread of the Black Lives Matter awakening, with emphasis in Albany, Troy, Hudson, Catskill, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Beacon, Newburgh, New Paltz, and smaller communities.
We’ve never been a true vanguard of revolution, or the riots that spark them. Yet we’ve always been a bellwether for how change grows in our nation.