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This Day for Africa – Race riot breaks out in Harlem

Harlem race riot of 1935, a riot that occurred in the Manhattan neighbourhood of Harlem on March 19–20, 1935. It was precipitated by a teenager’s theft of a penknife from a store and was fueled by economic hardship, racial injustice, and community mistrust of the police. It is sometimes considered the first modern American race riot.

Once home to a number of New York’s prominent families, Harlem by the early 1900s had become a major centre of African American culture. It provided the backdrop against which the Harlem Renaissance was set. Indeed, the race riot of 1935 is considered the terminating event of that cultural flowering.

By the 1930s African Americans had begun to make some strides toward equality—the first African American since Reconstruction had been elected to Congress; boycotts had resulted in opening up job opportunities for African Americans; and the Congress of Industrial Organizations had become the first union to admit Black people.

Despite those steps, however, racial inequality was still prevalent. The Great Depression had left the national economy in a shamble. Millions of people, of all ethnicities, were out of work. Further, African Americans continued to be the victims of discriminatory practices. They were often the first to be fired and the last to be hired. As homeowners they struggled with redlining policies, unfair rents, and falling property values.

Life in Harlem, as in many urban settings, was difficult during that period. The once-teeming nightclubs that had employed so many Blacks closed, and thousands of Southern Blacks, hoping to escape poverty and discrimination, settled in Harlem. To add to the residents’ frustration, the New York City government generally neglected Harlem, so its streets, playgrounds, and public facilities were often the last on the list to be repaired.

On March 19 Lino Rivera, a 16-year-old Black Puerto Rican, was caught stealing a penknife from the S.H. Kress dime store at 256 West 125th Street (across from the Apollo Theater), and the owner called the police. By the time the officers arrived, a crowd had gathered outside the store. The storekeeper, afraid of what the crowd might do if the boy was arrested, asked police to let Rivera go. The officers agreed, and the boy left by the store’s backdoor.

No one told the crowd what had happened, and soon rumours spread that the police had killed Rivera. More than 10,000 people took to the streets to protest the perceived police brutality. Black frustration exploded into rioting and the destruction of property. With the onset of looting, storekeepers tried to protect their property by posting such signs as “Black owned” and “We employ Black people” in their windows. When the all-white police force arrived to attempt to regain control, the rioters fought them.

The riot continued through the night of March 19 and into the next day. When it ended, 125 people had been arrested, more than 100 people had been injured, and 3 individuals were dead—all of them Black. Property damage to some 200 stores was in excess of $2 million.

After the riot, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had been in office for slightly more than a year, appointed a biracial commission to investigate the “disturbance” of May 19. When the commission issued its report later that year, La Guardia suppressed it because it painted such a grim picture of conditions among Black New Yorkers. Yet La Guardia remained popular with Black leaders and voters because he had championed Black causes and had included a small number of Blacks in city government.

After the riot, the mayor worked to further expand the opportunities for Blacks in city government as well as integrate city hospitals and improve sanitation, health care, and fire and police protection. Despite such attempts to improve conditions, La Guardia could do little to alleviate the long-term problems facing Harlem’s residents.

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