Hollow Brook Golf Course (Peekskill Riots)

1060 Oregon Road, Cortlandt Manor

Angry crowd near the concert grounds of Paul Robeson near Peekskill on September 4, 1949. Photo by Charles Hoff/NY Daily News via Getty Images. Source: Aljazeera.

On September 4, 1949, a concert for the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress, featuring Paul Robeson and hosted and chaired by author Howard Fast, took place on the grounds of what had been and would later re-emerge as the Hollow Brook Golf Course.

The concert began and ended peacefully. It was when the crowd began to disperse that terror began. As the approximately 20,000 attendees tried to leave the concert in cars and buses, a crowd of rioters lined the roads. The mob was made up of members of the Ku Klux Klan, but also ordinary civilians as well as some Jewish organizations in the community, many of whom reportedly were intimidated by the Klan or motivated by the irrational fear of communism that had swept the country. Shouting racist jeers at the interracial concertgoers, they hurled stones through the windows of the departing vehicles. Broken glass and rocks injured dozens of the attendees, and the angry mob pulled many others from their cars and beat them. Although the local government had brought in reinforcements of state and local police officers , law enforcement did little to stop the rioters and, in some cases, joined in violent beatings. According to the last 500 concert goers who had been acting as guards to protect the performers and the crowd, police officers brutally beat them as they tried to flee the scene.

The focus of the rioter’s ire was Paul Robeson, one of the most prolific Black performers of the 1940s, and loved by many throughout the United States and across the world for his rich baritone voice and notable acting performances. He also had many critics because he was on the political left and was an outspoken and influential advocate of economic and racial justice. This led many mainstream media sources to paint him as a communist radical. Robeson was an especially controversial figure at the time of the riots, as a falsified version of one of his speeches had been circulating in the media that greatly exaggerated his disdain for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. It was with this target on his back, that Robeson came to the Peekskill area in 1949. 

Paul Robeson, 1942. Photo by Gordon Parks, public domain.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Robeson’s concert was initially scheduled for August 27, at the Lakeland Acres picnic site, neighboring the Hollow Brook Golf Club, located a little north of Peekskill. Before the show was able to begin, a mob of angry protestors attacked the concert-goers, leading to an all-out brawl that left over 100 people seriously injured. In spite of the continued threats of violence, the concert was rescheduled for September 4 at the abandoned Hollow Brook Golf Club, with not only Robeson but also Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie performing. The large audience was made up mostly of leftists from nearby New York City as well as from the Hudson Valley, with Westchester County, in particular, then a hub of leftist, largely Jewish summer colonies.

The property where the club now stands was privately owned by a man named Steven D. Szego, who rented it to the concert organizers. Szego stated that he was neither a communist nor a communist-sympathizer, but was, as he told The Evening Star, “simply old-fashioned enough to believe that citizens of all races and creeds still have their freedom of expression by song and word.” Despite Szego’s proclamations, there were multiple arson attempts on his home after the concert, all of which were unsuccessful. 

What became known as the Peekskill Riots made international news and left a stain on the community for years, however, it has gone mostly unaddressed. The hatred directed at Robeson and his comrades reached every corner of the Peekskill area, yet there has been little acknowledgement of the widespread nature of the violence. 

The physical location of the riots has been partially converted into housing and a traffic circle, with no monument to Robeson or the victims of the riots. The Hollow Brook Golf Course is currently a fully functioning club, recognizing its part in the events of 1949 on its website. The club was opened in 1919, however it closed during World War II and resumed operations in the 1970s. The course was also home to a memorial gathering in 1999, 50 years after the Paul Robeson concert and subsequent riots. Organized by Westcherster civil rights activist Stanley Schear, the event featured multiple politicians as well as Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson Jr. who is quoted as saying “The time to forget will never come, yet the time to forgive has surely arrived.” 

Getting there:

From the Peekskill train station (Metro North Hudson Line), walk to the bus stop at Washington and Hudson Avenue. Take the 14 bus to Main and St. James Streets. Transfer to the16 bus to Oregon and Varian Roads. Walk eastward along Oregon Road (about 4 minutes) to Hollow Brook Golf Course.

To learn more: 

Baila Round Shargel, “Leftist Summer Colonies of Northern Westchester County, New York,” American Jewish History, Vol. 83, No. 3, 1995: 337–358.

Howard Fast, Peekskill, USA: inside the Infamous 1949 Riots. Dover Publications, 1951. 

Erwin Marquit, “I Was There – Peekskill 1949.” People’s World, September 3, 2009.

Lucinda Carroll, Geography, Class of 2023.

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