When Peoria Banned Paul Robeson

In April 1947, Paul Robeson, the outspoken leftist artist and singer, was barred from performing in Peoria, Illinois. The repressive move, though fought by a radical labor union of black and white workers, prefigured the Red Scare that would soon envelop the country.

Paul Robeson in 1942. (Gordon Parks / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

As an actor and singer, Paul Robeson was perhaps the world’s most popular black artist in the 1930s and 1940s. He was also an unapologetic leftist, loudly condemning racism and fascism in the United States and internationally.

But with the beginning of the Cold War, an anti-communist hysteria emerged that would soon engulf the country — smothering the anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-colonial politics that Robeson and many other leftists still espoused. The most famous “Second Red Scare” incident involving Robeson is the 1949 Peekskill riot, where a right-wing protest-turned-lynch-mob violently marched on a concert headlined by Robeson in the tiny New York town.

Far less well known is an incident two years earlier, in Peoria, Illinois. In April 1947, days after the US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) first attacked Robeson, he was scheduled to perform in Peoria. Almost immediately, Peoria’s entire white power structure — corporate, media, university, and government — condemned Robeson and canceled his concert. Robeson refused to back down. His local allies included African-American activists, particularly those in a radical labor union. Rather than perform publicly, Robeson sang at a tiny house concert hosted by a black union leader.

As the first US city to ban Robeson from singing, Peoria offered a preview of the political fault lines that would expand during the Second Red Scare. Repression against Robeson spiked thereafter and established the pattern: verbal assaults and threats of physical violence coordinated with political repression and full-throated support from a chorus of right-wing groups and corporations. Others who embraced left-wing politics — whether communist or not — also found themselves muzzled. As Robeson observed: “There’s a lesson that must be learned from this Peoria affair. . . . Americans seem to be on the go here regarding a Red Hysteria, but they don’t understand the nature and danger of fascism.”

As Peoria Goes . . .

The phrase “will it play in Peoria?” defines this city of roughly 110,000 straddling both banks of the Illinois River. As the Saturday Evening Post noted in 1949, “Generations of comedians have vulgarized Peoria as the symbol of the rube and the boob. . . . Peoria has become a companion word for ‘hayseed,” an all-American common denominator, a municipal equivalent of the [white] man on the street.”

The Peoria of the 1940s was overwhelmingly white and segregated. While the city’s black population rose during the first Great Migration (1915–1940), just 3 percent of residents were black in 1940. Public and private facilities upheld the color line by custom. Many employers, including Caterpillar, the area’s largest, and the Journal Star, the local newspaper, refused to hire black workers.

Paul Robeson leading Moore Shipyard workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, Oakland, September 1942. (Photographer unknown. National Archives)

Paul Robeson entered 1947 ready to fight. That January, he joined a St Louis picket line organized by the Civil Rights Congress to protest racially segregated theaters and attended a dinner in his honor hosted by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600 in Detroit. In March, Robeson’s performance in Salt Lake City featured his version of the classic “Joe Hill,” in the very city where the radical troubadour was executed in 1915. At the concert’s end, Robeson announced: “You’ve heard my final concert for at least two years, and perhaps for many more.” Henceforth, “I shall sing . . . for my trade union and college friends; in other words, only at gatherings where I can sing what I please.”

The following month, Robeson began a short tour in downstate Illinois. First, he performed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where two students from Millikin University, in nearby Decatur, invited Robeson to sing. He agreed and, two days later, put on a free concert to a “standing-room-only audience,” opening with some classic renditions of “Negro spirituals,” followed by a Chinese children’s song and “a Russian lullaby, commenting that he had found the Russians ‘love their children, too.’” Afterward, Robeson referred to brewing controversy in nearby Peoria where the city council had declared two days earlier, “no artist or speaker who has what they consider to be subversive tendencies may appear.” The city council copied the language of HUAC that condemned Robeson, that same week, for membership in “Communist Front” organizations. Robeson made clear that he still planned to perform: “It has been my privilege to fight Fascism in various parts of the world during recent years. I don’t mind if it now becomes my duty to fight it here in America.”

Just eighty miles north, the Peoria concert was scheduled for that evening at Shriner Auditorium. Though Robeson’s stardom should have resulted in a sold-out show, Allen Cannon, a Bradley University music instructor, struggled to sell tickets. Jimmie Fidler, a Peoria Journal columnist, castigated Robeson for having sung “Communist songs” at a recent Los Angeles concert. Allies of Robeson who called themselves the “People’s Side of the Robeson Incident” alleged that the ticket sale problem was due to “race prejudice, red baiting and anti-labor propaganda.”

Peoria Cancels Robeson

Events in the three days leading up to Robeson’s Peoria performance suggested an orchestrated campaign. On Tuesday, April 15, HUAC cited Robeson and a thousand other Americans, including former vice president Henry Wallace, as “invariably found supporting the Communist Party and its front organizations.” Almost immediately, Peoria’s city council declared that it would prevent Robeson’s performance because the concert would be “an incitement to riot.” Echoing HUAC, the city council condemned “any speaker or artist who is an avowed propagandist for Un-American ideology.” Simultaneously, Bradley University announced that it no longer would sponsor the concert.

That Wednesday, Cannon, along with the wife of a public relations director at Caterpillar, traveled to Champaign to convince Robeson’s manager to pull the show in Peoria. Since Robeson was a staunch advocate for interracial, leftist unionism — embodied by the Farm Equipment and Metal Workers of America (FE), which represented perhaps twenty-thousand workers at a huge Caterpillar factory in Peoria — one can guess at the corporation’s motives. The same day, with Mayor Carl Triebel’s encouragement, the city council banned Robeson in a unanimous vote.

Paul Robeson performs at Birmingham Town Hall on March 7, 1939, in aid of a local charity, the Birmingham Mail Christmas Tree Fund. (Birmingham Mail / Wikimedia Commons)

The American Legion, the country’s largest military veterans’ organization, also figured prominently in the attacks on Robeson, as later in Peekskill. Since its founding in 1919, this self-identified “patriotic” organization was explicitly antiradical, and just prior to the Peoria affair, the American Legion’s national commander had praised Peoria “as one of the strongholds of Americanism.” The group allowed racially segregated posts and did not prevent states from excluding black veterans altogether. Peoria had two American Legion halls: the all-white Post 2 and all-black Roy B. Tisdell Post.

Post 2 actively opposed Robeson’s concert. A few weeks earlier, a lawyer and former FBI agent, Paul Ferrin, delivered an inflammatory speech to four hundred Legionnaires in which he claimed that Communists “lurk[ed] in the shadow and work[ed] for evil” right in Peoria, particularly among unionists at Caterpillar Tractor. After a “roar of applause,” they unanimously voted to “rid themselves of those who seek to disrupt the orderly processes of government and economic life of this community because of their allegiance to the principles of communism.” Echoing Ferrin, Counterattack: The Newsletter of Facts on Communism, founded in 1947 by other former FBI agents, decried “a Communist goon squad from Local 105 of CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] Farm Equipment Workers known as FE, which controls the workers at big Caterpillar Tractor plant.”

Robeson’s Defenders

While the all-black Tisdell Post officially avoided involvement in the controversy, its leaders — who also helped helm the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and FE Local 105 — publicly supported Robeson. The name of the city’s black post honored a black Peorian whom the French government awarded its Croix de Guerre (war cross) for valor while serving in World War I as a lieutenant in the all-black 370th Infantry, nicknamed the “Black Devils” by their German adversaries. Clifford Hazelwood, vice president of the Peoria NAACP and editor of Bronze Citizen, a local black newspaper, “commanded” the Tisdell Post. For defending Robeson, Hazelwood and other black Legionnaires were assailed by right-wing forces in the city and state. In typical McCarthyite fashion, Hazelwood was guilty of “communistic activities and ideologies.” Hazelwood claimed to act in his capacity as a leader of the NAACP, not the American Legion; nonetheless, the American Legion’s Illinois state commander stripped the Tisdell Post of its charter and assets and locked its meeting house. When Hazelwood appealed to Roy Wilkins of the national NAACP, the latter proved more concerned with the organization’s anti-communist bona fides, complaining to no less than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover of “the misguided (or deliberate) attempt to use Hazelwood’s connection with the NAACP to imply in some manner that this Association is engaged in spreading communist ideology.”

Perhaps Robeson’s most important local ally was FE Local 105, a radical labor union that represented thousands of black and white workers in Peoria. The FE was among the boldest left-wing unions in the CIO. In keeping with local practice, before World War II Caterpillar only hired white workers. However, in 1941, “Cat” began hiring some black workers to be eligible for the many lucrative wartime federal contracts. The same year, FE Local 105 won recognition to represent the sixteen thousand workers at Caterpillar Tractor’s factory in Peoria. During the war, Cat’s mammoth East Peoria factory workforce soared to twenty-three thousand and remained almost as high after the war.

But the company never accepted the radical FE. Management dragged its heels in negotiations and made it clear that, if it had to deal with a union, it would prefer one aligned with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) or even the CIO’s UAW, which supported organizing black workers but whose leadership was anti-communist. Given Caterpillar’s hostility, along with the area’s pronounced racism and general conservatism that, presumably, was embraced by at least some of Cat’s white workers, the FE never could take rank-and-file support for granted.

Caterpillar Tractor Company factory, Peoria, Illinois, c. 1940. (Wikimedia Commons)

Building FE Local 105 depended heavily on Ajay Martin, an African-American organizer and leftist. Martin not only helped lead the massive Local 105; in 1946 he won election to serve as an FE vice president — making him, at twenty-five, “one of the youngest Negro union officials in the nation,” according to Ebony. The FE News also reported on Martin’s election: “The 13 million Negro people who want democracy and their constitutional rights . . . have been wondering about the sincerity of the CIO unions. . . . And the big companies have hastened to make hay, claiming that they, and not the unions, have the answers for the Negro people.”

Martin presided over a district where 90 percent of the FE members were white. He also was an elected leader in Peoria’s NAACP chapter and widely reputed to belong to the Communist Party. While he never publicly declared his membership, when the Peoria Journal leveled this charge, he responded cryptically: “I have no apologies to make for my political beliefs.”

Ajay Martin in Ebony, February 1947. (Photo used with permission of Steven Wolff, son of Werner Wolff, who took this photograph. Wolff’s photos and many others from the Black Star photo agency are housed at the Ryerson Image Center, Ryerson University.)

FE Local 105, with Martin leading, stood at the forefront of Peoria’s “civil rights unionism,” a term coined by historian Robert Korstad to describe unions that viewed racial equality as central to the fight for worker power. Many CIO unions organized in industries with large black workforces, and the CIO aggressively organized them. As Van A. Bittner, a CIO leader, declared, “I can say that there’s no better union men than the hundreds of thousands of Negro workers in the CIO.”

Robeson Comes to Town

Amid this swirling controversy, Robeson’s Bradley performance was canceled on April 15, though many still wished to meet with Robeson, so a reception was proposed. The mayor and city council refused, with Triebel even barring Robeson from entering the city, “citing a state law allowing him to take steps to avoid ‘riots and other disturbances.’”

That Friday afternoon, some gathered at City Hall, hoping for a chance to meet the legend. They were instead met by a heavy police presence. According to journalist Edward Robb Ellis, “Eight detectives and six cops waited for Robeson at the railroad station, but he slipped into town in an auto.” As Paul Robeson Jr later wrote, “Union members from CIO locals [possibly including Martin] and activists from the Civil Rights Congress joined Paul, William Patterson, and Max Yergan in Decatur to assess the danger. They reached unanimous agreement to challenge the ban by avoiding the train station.” Robeson was “driven to Peoria in a convoy of cars filled with union men armed with rifles, shotguns, and pistols to protect Paul from armed groups of racists. The convoy traveled over back roads into the heart of Peoria’s Black district, where Paul was safe and welcome. There they were joined by armed Black volunteers.”

Robeson met with supporters, sang a few songs in Martin’s living room, and spoke with members of the press. Chicago Defender columnist Lucius C. Harper later praised Martin for saving Robeson from racist residents in this “fascist-soaked town.” But while this private performance must have been wonderful for those present, Robeson’s son concluded: “it was a major defeat for Paul and a clear signal that there was a high price to pay for continuing on his present course.”

Red Scare Rising

The Peoria Affair stuck with Robeson. In an interview a few days later, Robeson compared Peoria to “an armed camp,” stating that “fascism has moved in” and that the police were “backed by vigilante bands of [American] legionnaires.” Three months later, after performing a concert before eighteen thousand people on the Harlem campus of the City University of New York, Robeson wrote, it “was a true expression of our democratic faith — for this was no Peoria.” Robeson blamed the Peoria Affair on the city’s elites:

. . . unbeknown to a great many people, many of America’s small cities are being run by a handful of the business people who practically own the town. . . . The Peoria affair is a problem bigger than just me. It involves this: Can a city council prevent a speaker or an artist from appearing in that town merely by holding a meeting and saying he cannot appear?

Simultaneously, the FBI ramped up its investigations into and repression of Robeson, playing a major role in the destruction of his career and, arguably, shortening his life.

Peoria’s attack on Robeson also foreshadowed the destruction of the city’s interracial, left-led labor movement. FE Local 105 was repeatedly redbaited by Caterpillar, the American Legion, and the FBI; the federal Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, dealt the union another vicious blow. Among the law’s provisions, Taft-Hartley required unions to sign affidavits certifying that no leaders belonged to the Community Party. Initially, the FE and a handful of other CIO affiliates refused to comply. But as historian Jason Koslowski notes, “Caterpillar dealt aggressively with FE, becoming one of the first companies to utilize the anti-communist provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act when it refused to bargain with or recognize the left-wing FE Local 105.”

When its contract expired in April 1948, FE leaders felt that they had no choice but to strike, although they appreciated the risks. Despite staying out for a month, the strike failed. The FE tried to hold onto its Caterpillar local but soon lost out to its UAW rival, which opportunistically condemned “the Communist Master Minds who run FE Local 105.”

For Robeson, mixing politics and music was part of his being, so his concerts remained political. As he recounted to one journalist immediately after the Peoria Affair, “I was going to Peoria as an avowed friend of labor. I was going to sing Joe Hill. . . . I’ve sung Joe Hill on every one of my programs for the past six years!” Robeson continued to use his global fame to criticize what he identified as the world’s greatest threats — racism, colonialism, fascism, and capitalism — which he saw as interlinked. Robeson explicitly connected them to the Peoria Affair: “The whole city was in a reign of terror! . . . And who organized this reign of terror? The guys who own Caterpillar and the other industries in Peoria. They’re the guys who are trying to beat the brains out of labor! It was the complete fascist technique.”

Robeson never returned to Peoria. He was blacklisted through the ’50s, his career snuffed out to such an extent that he is still little known among younger generations; according to Gerald Horne, a recent biographer, Robeson was the “primary victim of the ‘Blacklist.’” His experience in Peoria presaged how other leftists would be treated during the Second Red Scare. And just as Robeson’s career was destroyed, the Left’s agenda — for racial equality, militant unionism, anti-colonialism, socialism, and anti-fascism — were sidetracked.

What has played in Peoria has long been believed to reveal the values of mainstream America. So, too, who was prevented from playing there.