The Harlem Riots

1935 Riots

In 1935, The Great Depression had well and truly set in on America, with the black community of Harlem one of the worst hit. Unemployment was high, police brutality and un-justified arrest/detention of blacks was a regular occurence, medical and schooling facilities were grossly inadequate as well as tremendous poverty. Tension was high within the community.

The riots came about due to this high tension, coupled with a set of very unfortunate circumstances.

At around 2:30pm on March the 19th, a young boy (depending which source you read, he was either negro or latin) was caught for stealing at Kresge's Department store, owned by whites. The boy was taken out back and questioned by the manager. This event was seen by some people in the store. A woman ran out the store and started spreading a false rumor that a boy had been caught for stealing as was being beaten.

In an unfortunate coincidence, a funeral home was just around the corner from the store. Usually its hearses were parked infront of the home, however, on this day, there was no space avaliable, so one was parked infront of the department store.

Another unfortunate coincidence was that the store in question had been particularly discriminatory to blacks in regards of employment. After being picketted, the store reluctantly employed a few black store clerks, but quickly moved them to lesser jobs at the lunch counter.

As the rumor spread, people began gathering around the department store. Many of them saw the hearse and the rumor quickly mutated. A young boy had now been beaten to death by the police in the department store. In reality, the boy had been sent home just a few minutes after being caught.

By late afternoon the store was forced to close due to the angry crowd. An hour or so later, one of the store's window was smashed and the crowd started looting. Soon after a police car pulled up. One of the officers got out and drew his pistol, immediately making the crowd scatter and disperse. The officer aimed his gun at one of the looters. 1 shot was fired, 1 man was hit. The man died a few days later in the Harlem Hospital. The officer was never diciplined.

The shooting only served to inflame the rioters. The rumor continued to spread and more people took to the streets. Leaflets were spread by pro-negro organisations, screaming of the young boys death and the 'lies' told by the staff of the store and the police (that the boy had been released).

During the night and the following day when the riots ended, 2 more blacks lost their lives, 30 were injured and more than 100 were arrested. Many more buildings were targeted. The total property damage to white owned buildings (the only ones targeted) was around $2 million.

  • Slumbering fires in Harlem:
  • The National Review: Interrogatory,
  • Harlem: Dark Weather-Vane,
  • Injury Statistics:

1943 Riots

Discrimination against blacks was still high in Harlem(indeed across America) in 1943. Police brutality and unlawful arrests were still common, and it was this that sparked a new wave of rioting (1943 brought similar race riots all across America).

On August 1, police were staking out Hotel Braddock in Harlem, to catch citizens in the act of illegal activities, such as solicitation. A black woman was seen arguing with hotel employess, prompting a policeman named James Collins to come in and make an arrest. A black soldier nearby stepped into protest the arrest and a fight followed between him and police officer. According to witnesses, the black soldier struck the officer with his nightstick and then started to run away. The white officer stood up, pulled out his revolver and shot the soldier in the arm.

The soldier was arrested and taken by Collins to Harlem hospital, followed by an increasing number of angry blacks, who had heard or seen the incident. As the soldier was operated on, the crowd outside the hospital continued to grow, as did their anger. A cry of "A white cop shot and killed a black soldier" was heard and the crowd erupted.

Once again the targets of the crowd's anger were white owned shops and possessions. Shops were looted, cars were overturned and torched and buildings set on fire. Police brutality increased even more, with many blacks beaten during the riots.

The riots raged on for the weekend, until police were finally able to restore order on monday the 5th of August. As the smoke cleared and the damage was surveyed, 6 people had lost their lives, 180 were injured and 550 were arrested. Almost 1500 buildings had been damaged or completely destroyed, with an estimated damage cost in the range of $5 million.

  • Police Brutality:

1964 riots

On July 16, 1964, James Powell, a 15 year old black resident of Harlem, was was shot and killed by an off duty white police officer (later in September, the officer was cleared of any wrong doing by a grand jury). The population was outraged. All through July 16 and 17, protests were held (organised by CORE, the Congress Of Racial Equity) calling for the immediate prosecution and dismissal of the offending officer, as well as the resignations of the Police Commissioner and the Mayor.

On the 18th of July, protestors marched on the 28th Precinct in Harlem. They were met by 'tactical' police, who repeatedly pushed back the demonstrators. Eventually the police charged the main group of protestors, sparking a violent reaction that started the rioting.

In the following few days, Harlem was engulfed with rioting citizens, as well as police who beat anybody who crossed their path. As with the last riot in 1943, stores were looted and burned, cars were torched. The rioting lasted for 5 or 6 days, spreading into the nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant area.

By the time the rioters had been dispersed, 1 person had died, 144 had suffered injuries (some severe), 519 arrests had been made and 541 buildings had been damaged.

  • PBS Kids:
  • We Accuse: Bill Epton Speaks To The Court:
  • In Memory Of Bill Epton:
  • The Crisis -- The Overview:

Note: I haven't included property damage for the 1964 riots as any information, other than a passing mention, of the 1964 riots was hard to come by, and I never found any hard figures for property damage. If anyone knows, please message me so I may add it in.

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