Jon Scott BennettThe first episode of a five-part documentary about the 1949 Peekskill riots directed by Jon Scott Bennett, who lives in Putnam Valley, will debut at on Thursday (March 8) and at the Field Library in Peekskill on March 30.

What led to the riots?
Tension was bubbling about the “colonies” or “cooperatives” in northern Westchester and southern Putnam. They were occupied by working-class Jews and African Americans, many of whom were trade unionists passionate about leftist politics, who established cheap bungalows as affordable summer homes. They were seen in that very conservative area as outsiders, as communists, and considered a threat.

If there was a spark, it was a speech that Paul Robeson, a singer, actor and Black activist, gave in Paris. Some press coverage claimed he said African Americans would not fight against the Soviet Union, which was not true, but the reports caused national outrage. When people around Peekskill learned Robeson was coming to give a concert, they felt they had to do something to keep what they saw as un-American activities out of their city.

There were two riots. How did they differ?
The concert was scheduled for Aug. 27 on Oregon Road in Cortlandt, at the site of what is now the Hollow Brook Golf Club. About 2,000 people were expected from the summer colonies. People also came from Peekskill, and they probably outnumbered them. Veterans and others blocked the entrance. Concertgoers were attacked, cars flipped over, the stage and audience chairs burned. 

The concert was rescheduled for Sept. 4 near the turning circle at Oregon Road and Red Mill Road. Twenty thousand to 30,000 people, many in support of Robeson, traveled there on three narrow country roads. The people caught in the bottlenecked traffic faced a barrage of rocks and bottles. It was a miracle no one was killed; hundreds were severely injured. There were many examples of police harassing and abusing concertgoers, but blame also needs to be put on the superintendent of the state police, the district attorney of Westchester and the supervisor of the Town of Cortlandt for allowing a veterans’ parade at the concert entrance. There’s no way they didn’t know there would be trouble.

Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were there, but have their roles been embellished over the years?
History has a funny way of doing that. Woody Guthrie was a relative unknown — he didn’t perform; he was simply a guard. His songs afterward highlighted the story. Pete Seeger was better known and is in the documentary, discussing performing at the second concert, his experiences during and after, and his song, “Hold the Line.” I focus on the under-discussed parts of the story, such as crucial Black and Jewish perspectives that have been overlooked in favor of the more sanitized, less-controversial story of Pete Seeger. That said, he is relevant and important to the story.

What was your biggest challenge while making the film?
There was an attempt to block my efforts by certain museums or historical societies — small entities run like little fiefdoms by people who’ve lived here their entire lives. They want their version of history and don’t want the area to look bad. A few said this story has been done to death or is best forgotten. They prevented me from accessing archives. I was fortunate to find other sources, people who felt my frustration. I even spoke to people who were at the riots. Some provided feedback at test screenings. One woman, now in her 90s, was driving to the Aug. 27 concert and remembers people trying to overturn her car.

The story is 75 years old; why retell it now?
It’s still relevant. The documentary examines the systemic racism, antisemitism and oppression of the working class that Robeson tried to combat and that we’re still combating. Even today, a lot of people are afraid to talk about him. When people talk about race riots, they think of it as a Southern thing. But as New Yorkers, we have a long history of skeletons in our closet, including Klan activity. Much of what has been written about the riots is from a single perspective. The documentary uses many sources, examines different perspectives and explores the circumstances that led to the riots.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Turton, who has been a reporter for The Current since its founding in 2010, moved to Philipstown from his native Ontario in 1998. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Cold Spring government, features

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