At around 2.30pm on Tuesday, March 19, 1935, Lino Rivera, a sixteen-year old Puerto Rican boy cut through Kress’ 5 & 10 store on West 125th Street in Harlem on his way home. As he walked through the store, Rivera stole a penknife. Two white staff members saw the theft, and grabbed Rivera. A struggle ensued during which the boy bit both men. The commotion attracted the attention of the crowd of women shopping in the store, and a police officer was summoned. He took the boy into an office; behind closed doors, the store manager said he did not want to press charges, so the officer released Rivera out a rear entrance, and the boy continued home. However, no one told the crowd in the store Rivera had been released, and as rumors circulated that the boy had been beaten, or even killed, the women began to protest. More police were called to clear the store, and several of the women they pushed out began screaming that a boy had been killed, drawing a large crowd, and sending rumors of police brutality spreading throughout Harlem. A group of white Communists began picketing in front of store. Twice they took to platforms to speak to the crowd, only to be dragged down and taken away by police. In the commotion someone in the crowd threw a brick, shattering one of the store windows. That violence drew crowds that spread along the long block between 7th and 8th Avenues, and spilled off the pavement to block the street. Mounted police, 5 radio cars and squads of patrolmen were sent to clear the street. Charges by the mounted police, and shots fired into the air, eventually cleared the crowd from 125th street, and the roadway reopened to traffic. Further clashes between crowds and the police followed, and over the next 10 hours windows were broken and stores looted across Harlem, dozens of police and passersby were injured, 4 people were killed, and over 100 were arrested.
It took a very specific confluence of circumstances and places needed to trigger a novel form of public disorder in Harlem. Not any report or rumor of police violence would have been enough; there were many others in the weeks and months and years preceding March 19, and the violence they provoked was focused on police. Such clashes had never extended to attacks against (white) businesses. Nor would a clash with police in the context of any business have been enough to trigger the riot. It needed to be a clash with police linked with a store on 125th Street. As a journalist put it, for nearly a decade the 125th Street district “represented the most irritating section of white business interests in the community.” Only on 125th St had stores been the target of prolonged boycotts and pickets, and continued to discriminate in employment. Only on 125th street were there venues and businesses that had, and in some cases continued to, practice segregation as well as employment discrimination. Most of the white businesses above 125th street had made greater accommodations to their customers, and were small, family enterprises, with few if any jobs available for white or black. Other uptown stores had moved more quickly to hire black workers in response to picketing prior to the campaigns on 125th Street.
Only on and around 125th St were there significant numbers of whites on the streets in addition to in businesses. It was the major shopping and entertainment district north of Central Park, and a transportation hub, catering to white neighborhoods to its west, south and east as well as the black neighborhoods to its north. At the same time, the black settlement had expanded below 125th Street around 1930, so that the district now sat within the boundaries of a black neighborhood far larger in population and area than those that whites attacked in race riots earlier in the century. In addition, thanks to the geography of Manhattan, black Harlem was not surrounded by white neighborhoods as were other black enclaves in the city. Consequently, racial violence on 125th Street would not draw whites from other areas of the city in the way clashes in smaller neighborhoods had. A clash on 125th would more quickly involve white members of the CP than one elsewhere in Harlem, as they had a local HQ just north of 125th Street on Lenox Ave, and the Young Liberators had their HQ just south of 125th on Lenox Ave.
Events spread beyond the events on 125th Street in a complex pattern; north, further up Lenox Ave than the other avenues, and south into Harlem’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods, in several waves of activity that produced various forms of violence. While the aerial view offered by a map reveals the spread of the riot, “gazing down from a great height makes it hard to see chaos and confusion,” as Vincent Brown notes in regard to his map of the slave revolt in Jamaica. In the case of the riot, what we can’t see are the crowds that filled the streets for much of the night, and often literally surrounded the events that appear on the map. A point on the map generally represents a moment when groups emerged from the crowds to attack individuals, buildings or vehicles. However, crowds were present on the streets for more than the moments captured on the map.
As the riot spread over Harlem, the actions of the crowd followed a pattern unlike any race riot that preceded it, but one that would be echoed in the 1943 riot in Harlem and the riots of the 1960s. First crowds gathered to protest, leading to clashes with police; then windows were broken; and finally, some time later, looting broke out. The map from which this narrative is derived has limits as evidence of the riot’s chronology. Only 40% (69/173) of the events on the map appear on the timeline; for the majority is there no information on when they took place. That is particularly the case for stores with broken windows; only 4 of 49 appear in the timeline. Nonetheless, the map does confirm the pattern reported in other sources.
Enough time elapsed between the shifts in behavior that they need to be seen as discontinuous, and each phase of disorder considered in its own right. The progression from one to the next was not inevitable – at least, not in 1935. By the time riot convulsed Harlem again in 1943, this form of violence had become familiar, even ritualized.