The map in Digital Harlem shows that events spread from 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.1 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, events followed a pattern unlike any race riot that preceded it. First crowds gathered to protest, leading to clashes with police; then windows were broken; and finally, some time later, looting broke out. The map in Digital Harlem 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 fit with 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. The period before 10pm saw a protest that expanded to clashes with police when their efforts disperse crowds escalated the violence, leading to attacks on Kress’ spreading to the other large stores that had been the targets of the boycott movement.
A second phase of violence resulted after 10pm in part from police pushing crowds away from 125th Street, on to the avenues that ran north/south through Harlem. Groups of blacks attacked whites they encountered on the street and in passing vehicles, but they encountered relatively few in those areas of Harlem. In this context, businesses provided an alternative outlet for racial antagonism. That some blacks stores were caught up in this violence is not at odds with that interpretation. As crowds moved through Harlem, not everyone would have been aware of which stores were owned by blacks. When black storeowners put up signs identifying themselves, crowds generally avoided them. Although the shift to breaking windows literally opened the way for looting, that looting did not immediately occur further suggests that attacks on stores were initially an attack on whites.
The time lag between attacks on stores and looting that began after midnight suggests that new groups joined the crowds. Given that the riot occurred in the midst of the Depression, which had hit Harlem residents particularly hard, it is unsurprising that some saw an opportunity to alleviate their economic needs by looting stores that been targets of racial violence. That the looting appears to have been concentrated on Lenox Avenue fits such an interpretation. The street was in some ways the least likely of Harlem’s avenues to be the main target of looting, as it had long been home to lower grade stores than on 7th Avenue, but the block’s to the east of Lenox Ave were Harlem’s poorest and most overcrowded. If much of the looting was the work of the hungry, it did not supplant racial antagonism. As some groups looted stores, others continued to attack whites, in a context of intensifying violence fed by police beginning to shoot at looters.
Harlem’s riot was thus not a total break with the past. To the extent that they could, Harlem’s residents attacked whites. A spatial perspective highlights that the new forms of racial violence that appeared for the first time in Harlem resulted at least as much from the targets available to blacks as a change in their motives or the nature of racial antagonism. There were fewer whites to attack in the new, larger black neighborhood, and few whites responded to racial violence by venturing into black neighborhoods (and were less motivated to do so when provocations did not involve clashes between black and white populations, but between blacks and police and storeowners). Rather than a break with the past, the 1935 riot involved the layered violence that Dominic Capeci and Martha Wilkerson have argued characterized the later riot in Detroit in 1943: a transitional moment that “piled distinct layers of violence atop one another” to encompass both violence against individual whites, and against white authority and property.2