Existing accounts of the riot

At around 2.30pm on Tuesday, March 19, 1935, Lino Rivera, a sixteen-year old Puerto Rican boy on hiss way home, cut through the Kress’ 5 & 10 Cent store on West 125th Street in Harlem, and stole a penknife. Two white staff members saw the theft, and grabbed Rivera. In the ensuing struggle, 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, police and passersby were injured, 4 people were killed, and over 100 were arrested.1

Initial explanations of the riot put the blame on hoodlums and Communists, before quickly giving way to the refrain that what had occurred had not been a race riot, but an economic riot: a protest against discrimination and the deteriorating conditions the Depression had brought to Harlem. The subcommittee of the Mayor’s Committee on Conditions in Harlem investigating the events of March 19 and 20 reported no evidence of any premeditation, role for the Communists, or physical conflict between whites and blacks that would warrant the label of race riot. Instead, crowds attacked property not persons. Their resentment was limited to whites who owned stores, who exploited black residents, but denied them the opportunity to work. The Committee explained the riot as the result of the strain of unemployment and discrimination, and the attitude and actions of the police, highlighting one incident in particular, the killing of 16-year-old Lloyd Hobbs by a patrolman. They covered what happened in Kress’ in detail, but devoted only a few lines to events in Harlem in the subsequent ten hours. The report contained no details of the number of deaths, injuries, arrests or damage done during the riot.2

The major study of Harlem in the 1930s, Cheryl Greenberg’s Or Does It Explode, echoes that explanation, with a political inflexion. “The apparent violence against a poor black child triggered a violent outburst because it was an immediate example of two long-held community concerns: racial inequality and harsh treatment by police and white authorities.” Pointing to the focus on white property on 125th Street, Greenberg draws a direct line to the campaigns against employment discrimination by those same stores over the preceding two years that had been ended by an injunction against picketing a few months earlier. On that basis, she argues that, “The riot was as much a political act as were organized protests and campaigns,” an outlet for passions aroused but no longer with an outlet.3

In the historiography of American race riots, the events in Harlem came to be recognized as the first instance of a form of racial violence that departed from the pattern established in the early decades of the twentieth century. Labeled communal riots, those riots had involved clashes between whites and blacks, generally centered in black neighborhoods, which spread over contested areas where blacks were beginning to settle, and to central business districts, where whites attacked individual blacks. When the violence directed instead at police and property within the boundaries of a black neighborhood seen in Harlem recurred in the 1940s, and then again in the 1960s, it became clear that what commentators at the time saw as something other than racial violence in fact represented a new pattern. Sociologist Morris Janowitz labeled it a commodity riot. None of the scholars of the 1935 riot offer a narrative of what occurred after the disorder spread from Kress’ store more than the few sentences offered by the Mayor’s Committee.4

  1. Newspaper reports of the riot
  2.  Report of Mayor’s Committee on Conditions in Harlem (1935)
  3. Cheryl Greenberg, Or Does It Explode: Black Harlem in the Great Depression (Oxford University Press, 1991), 5
  4. Morris Janowitz, “Patterns of Collective Racial Violence,” in The History of Violence in America, ed Hugh Graham Davis and Ted Robert Gurr (1969)