Paul Robeson was an African American athlete, actor, singer, lawyer, scholar, and advocate for social justice. Robeson's progressive political views led him to be branded "Un-American" during the McCarthy era. His American passport was revoked and he was all but erased from American History. In 1949 Robeson sang at a concert in Peekskill, New York. My grandfather, Phil Sosis, volunteered to be part of an honor guard that was formed to protect Robeson from right wing demonstrators.
Grandpa looks at Howard Fast's book, Peekskill USA.
I just got that book from David's parents.
I didn't even know this book existed. I am going to see if I can get myself a copy.
David's mother and grandparents were at Peekskill in 1949 and
so was my friend Corita's grandfather.
Your grandfather was at Peekskill in 1949.
It’s a pretty amazing connection to have with my friends, that
we have this shared family history. I find the whole of your life very
inspiring but I want to ask you specifically about your experience at
the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill. But first lets set the stage of
who you are. Where and when were you born?
I was born in the Lower East Side of New York City, September 13, 1914. I grew up mainly in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, which existed on Amsterdam Avenue from 136th to 138th Streets. It ran from Amsterdam Avenue all the way down to Broadway.
And why were you there?
My mother was a teenage bride and she gave birth at a very early age. And when the second child came along my father took off and she found that she could not take care of two small children and still be able to go out and work to support the family. So a social worker arranged for us to go into the institution. And she came every weekend to see us and support us.
What was the orphanage like?
It was very strict. It was orthodox Jewish and strangely enough I was never bar mitzvahed. They somehow skipped over me, which is just as well. By that time I didn't believe in God anymore at that point. I was an atheist. And the reason I became an atheist was that one of the things the Hebrew School emphasized was that it was morally wrong for an unmarried man to have sexual relationships with a woman. And one day when I was roughly ten or eleven years old I was walking through the halls of the orphanage and I passed the rabbi's room and there he was stark naked having a relationship with a woman. In that instant I went from believing in God to becoming an atheist.
You were pretty tough as a kid right?
I had developed a stammer and the kids, being as cruel as they are used to mock me. And I learned to fight physically and I became very strong and after a while they stayed away from me because whenever they messed with me they would get beaten up. There was a counselor at the home who told me that was not the way to go. That I would do much better if I would solve these problems from within myself. And he suggested that I go upstairs, go into the bathroom, lock the door and look in the mirror. And look at the friend in the mirror. These are his words.
That same counselor helped you with your stuttering?
He taught me to hit my own hand this way. (Phil punches the palm of his hand.) When I would stutter I would hit my palm and that would tend to allow me to speak more coherently.
You must have looked pretty menacing! You left the orphanage at
My mother had met a man who also had children at the institution and they decided to 'make a home for the children', using their expression. So we moved out of the orphanage and I continued at Styvesant High School. One day I came home early and found this man beating my mother. I became enraged and beat him into a pulp and that was the end of that marriage. That being the case I had to go out and find a job.
I approached an uncle of mine who was working in a factory, a metal working factory in Northern New Jersey. Through him I got a job as a helper on a truck there for 17 cents an hour. The truck made deliveries to the various building sites. Eventually they put me on in the factory where I earned more money and after about 5 years I was appointed foreman over my division.
What did your division do?
I operated a machine called the power press brake, which was able to generate tremendous pressures to bend the steel into specific shapes.
How long did you work at that factory?
About 40 odd years. After I was inside the plant a few years, around 1944, I started talking up that there were things we should be getting that we were not getting. I talked about organizing. We formed a local of the carpenter's union, which is #2947, and it exists to this present day.
What were the advantages of organizing a local?
There was an agreement signed where we got paid for overtime, we got health insurance that covered not only ourselves but also our families. Those were the two big things.
How did the progressive seed get planted?
I admired people who stuck their necks out and I tried to emulate them. I became active in the YCL. Do you know what the YCL is?
The Young Communist League?
The Young Communist League, yes. I became active in that around the start of the war. They were fighting against fascist organizations throughout the world. They were just as much opposed to what was happening in China at the time. Also in Eastern Europe to say nothing of what was going on right here in America, particularly in the south where the Negroes were being treated as second class citizens. I fought for equality for myself and my peers and I fought for equality for those who didn't have it and were not in a position to do anything about it at the time.
As a member of the YCL did you identify as a communist?
At that time I never thought of any differentiation. I would read communist literature. I had read Karl Marx. They made sense to me. They applied to my life in terms of things that had occurred to me. There was no reason why I should not believe in these concepts.
When did you become aware of Paul Robeson?
At an early age. I used to listen to his voice on records and on the radio, a beautiful singing voice. I also heard him on the radio in an opera. When I saw Paul Robeson sticking his neck out particularly for the people in Mississippi and Alabama he endeared himself to me. These people should be treated as human beings and given decent housing and decent jobs and should be paid according to the jobs that they are actually doing. So many years after that period we still have the question of separation when there should be no separation.
This book (Peekskill USA by Howard Fast) filled in some of the
background of what happened in 1949. I learned that there was an initial
attempt at having a concert a week prior to the concert that you went
to. At the first concert Howard Fast, who was one of the concert organizers,
and about 50 other people were physically attacked by-
The American Legion.
The American Legion, yes. The response to this attack was to organize
another concert immediately. When the news got out about what happened
thousands of people arrived. How did you hear about the second concert?
I was at both.
You were at both!
I was at the first concert and when the American Legion showed up I was part of that cordon that got Paul Robeson out of there.
At the first concert Robeson never made it to the concert area.
Right, he stayed in the car and we got him out of there. I was in the second car behind Robeson's car.
How did you get involved?
I was approached by people in the Left Wing Movement to be a part of a cordon to protect Robeson, an Honor Guard. There were a number of union people who were involved in setting up the concert and they asked me to volunteer.
I said yes. When the first concert became unsuccessful that set in motion on a much broader level cries of shame and cries of "we're going to have this concert!” That's when the actual concert took place, the second try.
There was something the second time that was not at the first concert, which was a number of police. There was always a question in my mind as to who they were there to protect. When we had the first part of the field completely covered with people that’s when Paul came out.
There's a picture in the book of a wall of people all the way
around the field. They were volunteers?
Yes, volunteers. (looks at picture) I remember this wall being much larger, it extended all the way around the concert. I'm trying to see if I was part of this grouping. Most of these people were unionists, anti-fascists.
It looks like most people in this wall are white. But one of the
exceptional things about Robeson was that he had a following of both
black and white progressives.
In terms of the audience of the concert it was a mixed crowd, black and white. In terms of the cordon it was 90% white.
There were snipers on the hill above the concert area and a few
people volunteered to make a human shield around Robeson on stage.
I was on the stage. I volunteered to give my life for him if necessary.
Were you scared?
I had a very clear understanding of what was involved in terms of the anti-fascist fight and I looked upon it from that point of view rather than any personal feelings.
Who were these people who showed up to demonstrate and what were
they opposed to about the concert?
They carried signs identifying themselves as part of the American Legion. They were more conservative. I am being very kind when I say conservative. They were out and out reactionaries. They had the thinking that it was correct to quote keep the Negro in his place unquote. The American Legion to this very day is an ultra conservative political entity with thinking in terms of its own policies rather than the masses of people.
Paul Robeson really got under their skin, so to speak.
Paul Robeson was seen as a threat, to their way of doing things.
Because he was progressive and black?
90% of it was because he was black. Not only that but he had attained a certain amount of success as an entertainer.
So not only was he a Renaissance man but an uppity African-American
one at that.
That's how they saw him, yes. When he finished the singing and the concert was over we asked people in the audience to stay where they were while Paul got into a car and a group got him away.
The pictures show a long road leading out of the concert area
that created an-
Yeah, an ambush. Demonstrators smashed the windows out of the
cars leaving the concert with rocks and shouted "Nigger lovers" and "Go
back to Russia".
Boy this really brings back the memories.
Like getting into a physical fight and being pushed into a car and - out of there!
Anyway I stopped attending the YCL meetings some time after the Robeson affair.
I felt I could be more productive if I were not smeared with the red brush.
How were you smeared?
At my job there was an election coming up and one of the union leaders on a local level was very conservative in his approach to everything. We wanted him out. The head union supported us and the candidate we were supporting was classified as a left winger but not associated with the Communist Party. I was accused of being a communist at that time by the conservatives in the factory who were supporting the other candidate. And I denied it. I said you show me proof that I am a member of the Communist party and they couldn't do that.
However in the 1940's your conception of communism was totally different.
In the 40's it was seen as working to bring about an equality that did not exist at that time. Under McCarthyism it was a blanket reprisal and a blanket smothering of anything progressive of any nature. So you weren't fighting individual issues you were doing something altogether different. It stopped being about specifics and it became a label.
How long did you work at the factory?
I worked there until I was 60 years old. In 1974 I ended at the factory. They called me into the office they told me I needed to pick someone that I would train who would take my job when I retire at age 65. I was a little amazed and said "I wasn't planning on retiring at 65". They said "But you will. That's company policy". I said "This is the first I hear of it and I been with the company for 40 years". They said "Well that's the way it is now" and I said, "Why wait till I'm 65 and have a problem then. I'm quittin' now. Get yourself someone else". I came home and told this to your grandmother and she said they're advertising for industrial people to become vocational teachers. I said I don't think they want anybody as old as me. She said what have you got to lose. Call. So I called and the guy said come down let's talk. He said he could get me a job as a vocational teacher. I accepted and I started working at Scotch Plains Vocational School. I worked there until I was 77 years old. Then I retired. So 17 years I put in at the vocational high school. I was a guidance counselor as well as a placement coordinator. I went out and found jobs for those who were eligible. I think I did some good there.
You started writing poetry in the 1970's?
Yes. I had written a note to Ella, your grandmother about something or other and I think it was your mother said I had a way with words and I should do something about it and suggested that I go to the New School. So I went down to the New School and I learned how to write poetry. And I've been writing poetry ever since.
Did you ever write a poem about Peekskill?
No. I've written about many things. I've written anti fascist poems. I've written about the scars that children developed in terms of the Nagasaki war in Japan but I've never written about Peekskill or the fascist element within America. It's an interesting question. ★