JF Ptak Scence Books Post 1255--expanded
"The Harlem riot of 1935, now the subject of a comprehensive report, demonstrated that 'the Negro is not merely the man who shouldn't be forgotten; he is the man who cannot safely be ignored'." Alain Locke, Survey Graphic, 1936.*
This is a report to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (mayor of NYC from 1934-1945, a liberal Republican who was exactly what was needed in the city at exactly the right time) on what has come to be recognized as America’s first race riot.1 The damage was widespread, with hundreds of people injured, three killed, and $2 million 1935 dollars lost in during the Harlem event. The action started at the S.H. Kress dime store on 256 W. 125th St. (just across from the Apollo Theater) in Harlem, where a 16-year-old boy named Lino (described int his report as a “young Negro” though he was Puerto Rican) was detained by authorities in the store for shoplifting. He was taken to the store’s basement and released to the backstreet unharmed, but a rumor spread violently and quickly that a young child had been taken to the basement of the store and beaten (or killed) for stealing a piece of candy. Complications arose when the police arrived and when civic leaders’ questions went unanswered. An odd and unfortunate twist of faith placed a hearse in front of the store during this build-up (from the business across the street from the store), inspiring outrage and “proof:” that the boy had been killed.2
In addition to the missing boy, the hearse, the police, and bad communications, were handbills distributed in the neighborhood printed by the Young Communist League and the black semi-militant Young Liberators, all helping to fan the flames of the crowds by the Kress store, which had swelled to several thousand people after just two hours--the riot came soon thereafter.
The Report of Subcommittee Which Investigated the Disturbances of March 19th3 (and issued before August 15, 1935), was chaired by Arthur Garfield Hayes,analyzed the event in a surprisingly sympathetic way, recognizing that there was no organized response to the event, and finding that the response was understood to be a reaction to the long history of abuse of African Americans and poor governmental/police relations--and this all in eight quick pages. LaGuardia said "We cannot be expected to correct in a day the mistakes and omissions of the past fifty years. But we are going places and carrying out a definite program. While the critics have been throwing stones, I have been laying bricks." It was surprising top me that the report was bi-racial, and that there was some real attempt to understand the problem and "do" something about it, rather than just chalk the whole thing up as something that could be simply solved with pure force. [The original report is available for purchase from our blog bookstore.]
As Locke wrote (below) the Riot of 1935 was the end of the Harlem Renaissance, and that a new era had begun. For his part, LaGuardia at least opened a way to communicate about how to address the causes of such vast and repellent circumstances that eventually turned into the riot.
* Locke continues: "Eleven brief years ago Harlem was full of the thrill and ferment of sudden progress and prosperity; and Survey Graphic sounded the tocsin of the emergence of a "new Negro" and the onset of a "Negro renaissance." Today, with that same Harlem prostrate in the grip of the depression and throes of social unrest, we confront the sobering facts of a serious relapse and premature setback; indeed, find it hard to believe that the rosy enthusiasms and hopes of 1925 were more than bright illusions or a cruelly deceptive mirage. Yet after all there was a renaissance, with its poetic spurt of cultural and spiritual advance, vital with significant but uneven accomplishments; what we face in Harlem today is the first scene of the next act—the prosy ordeal of the reformation with its stubborn tasks of economic reconstruction and social and civic reform..."
1. Sociologist Allen D. Grimshaw called the Harlem Riot of 1935 "the first manifestation of a 'modern' form of racial rioting," citing three criteria: "violence directed almost entirely against property"; "the absence of clashes between racial groups", and "struggles between the lower-class Negro population and the police forces". "Harlem Renaissance". Online Newshour Forum. PBS. February 20, 1998. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/february98/harlem5.html.
Another commission set to investigate the riot was headed by E. Franklin Frazier which produced a report, "The Negro in Harlem: A Report on Social and Economic Conditions Responsible for the Outbreak of March 19, 1935," which found that the riot was not a controlled event and had happened spontaneously as a result of prolonged "injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation".
2. Locke continues his observation on the Riot: "Curtain-raiser to the reformation was the Harlem riot of March 19 and 20, 1935; variously diagnosed as a depression spasm, a Ghetto mutiny, a radical plot and dress rehearsal of proletarian revolution. Whichever it was, like a revealing flash of lightning it etched on the public mind another Harlem than the bright surface Harlem of the night clubs, cabaret tours and arty magazines, a Harlem that the social worker knew all along but had not been able to dramatize—a Harlem, too, that the radical press and street-corner orator had been pointing out but in all too incredible exaggerations and none too convincing shouts."
3. The commission was headed by Arthur Garfield Hayes and Charles H. Roberts, and was a bi-racial affair. "IMMEDIATELY after the March riot, Mayor La Guardia appointed a representative bi-racial Commission of Investigation, headed by an esteemed Negro citizen, Dr. Charles H. Roberts. After 21 public and 4 closed hearings conducted with strategic liberality by Arthur Garfield Hays..."
4. Recommendations from the report:
Increased hospital and health clinic facilities to combat disproportionate disease in the densely populated Negro areas.
Recommended reorganization of Harlem hospitals and wider admission of Negro physicians to staff appointments, internee' posts and educational facilities at all other municipal hospitals.
New health center for Central Harlem District similar to East Harlem Center and a Negro supervisory health officer [the latter already agreed to by Commissioner Rice].
Additional school buildings and extra educational facilities for vocational guidance, visiting teachers, and playgrounds. [The comparative absence of racial discrimination in the school system is one of the bright features of the report.]
Housing legislation and additional low cost housing projects in line with recommendations of the report. Additional PWA and federal grants must be sought for such projects.
Relaxing of the present tension in public opinion about the policy and attitude of the police in Harlem. The report recommends a Citizens' Public Safety Committee not only to cooperate with the Police Commissioner as an advisory body but as a board of complaint in cases of suspected police brutality or reputed violations of citizens' rights.