Sculpture, musical performance and speech commemorate the civil rights activist and baritone

Fit the Battle, a free multimedia performance commemoration and tribute to the renowned actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, will gather musicians, artists and a speaker from 6 to 8 p.m. on Aug. 21, at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art (HVCCA).

Justin Randolph Thompson, Fit the Battle
Justin Randolph Thompson, Fit the Battle

The piece is being held in conjunction with the anniversary of the 1949 Peekskill riots, which were instigated by the announcement of a benefit concert by Robeson for the Civil Rights Congress. It will be set around a monumental sculpture evoking Robeson and his life and feature a large gathering of baritone saxophone players who aim to, according to program notes, “immortalize the fervor and spirit of this critical figure in American history and his global reaching vision of united.” The project is directed by Justin Randolph Thompson, in collaboration with Bradly Dever Treadaway and Jason Thompson.

A keynote speech addressing Robeson’s life, legacy and impact will be given by Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, where he won the 2010 Robert B. Cox Award for Teaching. Neal has written and lectured extensively on black popular culture, black masculinity, sexism and homophobia in black communities, and the history of popular music.

Robeson (1898-1976) earned a scholarship to Rutgers University at age 17, the third African American to do so. He became one of the institution’s most stellar students receiving top honors for his debate and oratory skills and winning 15 letters in four varsity sports. He was elected Phi Beta Kappa and became his class valedictorian. He then earned a degree from Columbia University Law School. Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer, but left after encountering severe racism at his firm. He then turned to the stage, and soon afterward starred in the London staging of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and then in Show Boat, in which he sang Ol’ Man River, a song that would become his signature.

In the late 1920s, Robeson and his family relocated to Europe, where they lived for more than a decade. Upon returning he established both a singing and film career. Robeson regularly spoke out against racial injustice and was involved in world politics. He supported Pan-Africanism, sang for Loyalist soldiers during Spain’s Civil War, took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations and performed for Allied forces during World War II. He also visited the Soviet Union several times during the mid-1930s, taken by much of its culture and ideas.

With the advent of the Cold War and McCarthyism Robeson found himself labeled a communist, and blacklisted and barred by the State Department from renewing his passport. Robeson published his biography, Here I Stand, in 1958, the same year that he won the right to have his passport reinstated. Robeson again traveled internationally and received a number of accolades for his work, but damage had been done, as he suffered from debilitating depression and related health problems.

A detail from Fit the Battle
A detail from Fit the Battle

Project Director Thompson is a Peekskill-born sculptor and new media artist. Living between Italy and the U.S. since 2001, he has exhibited internationally and participated in numerous residencies in the U.S. and in Europe. He is a recipient of the 2013 Louis Comfort Tiffany Award; a 2013 Visual Art Grant from the Fundacion Marcelino Botin; and a 2013 Emerging Artist Fellowship at Socrates Sculpture Park among many others.

Treadaway is a Brooklyn-based artist and teacher who utilizes photography, video, film and installation to emphasize socially conscious themes and self-awareness. Treadaway is a Fulbright Scholar to Italy and works as both a faculty member and the digital media coordinator at The International Center of Photography in New York City. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art; Center for Photography at Woodstock; The International Center of Photography; The Mobile Museum of Art; The Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, Italy, and the Lishui Museum of Photography in China.

Thompson, a third generation jazz musician from Peekskill, gave up a scholarship to the University of Tennessee, and instead started a six-year stint on the road with Knoxville-based rock/R&B group Gran Torino. The group toured nationally, made several recordings, and enjoyed some college radio success before disbanding. Thompson returned to the UTK to study jazz under many great professors including Jerry Coker and Donald Brown. He recently founded the band Frog and Toad’s Dixie Quartet.

Salem Art Works has provided funding, coordinating and support for the project through a residence. The HVCCA is located at 1701 Main St., Peekskill. For more information visit

Photos courtesy HVCCA

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