Year of the Riot: Harlem, 1935

People Involved

Professor Shane White
Associate Professor Stephen Robertson
Professor Stephen Garton

Project overview

This project examines the riot that exploded in Harlem in 1935, the first example of a new pattern of racial violence that recurred throughout the twentieth century, one centered not on interracial attacks but directed at property and the police, and contained in black districts. Building on our award-winning Digital Harlem website, we map and reconstruct the neighborhood, and develop an innovative spatial analysis, that provides an interpretive key to understanding such violence. Locating the riot in everyday life offers a unique view of a year of economic upheaval, and an opportunity to access what changed in the 1930s, and to what extent Harlem became a slum and ghetto.

The Harlem Riot

125th Street

Sometimes the most absurd set of circumstances provides the spark that fires the conflagration. Early in the afternoon of March 19 1935, Lino Rivera, a sixteen-year old "colored boy," was seen stealing a ten-cent penknife from a display at the very rear of E.H. Kress and Company’s nickel and dime store on 125th Street in Harlem. Although the scared young boy initially struggled, grabbing hold of one of the store's columns and biting the hands of his captors, he quickly acquiesced. But the scuffle had attracted attention and a crowd began to gather. A summoned Mounted Patrolmen asked the store manager if charges were going to be pressed, but he, as had often happened before, instructed the police to let the shoplifter go. To avoid the crowd, the officer took Rivera through the basement and released him on to 124th Street. No one in the crowd knew what had happened, but one "hysterical Negro woman," as the later investigation labelled her, cried out that they had taken "the boy to the basement to beat him up." At this point an ambulance pulled up outside the main entrance. It had been called to tend to the bitten hands of Rivera's captors, but its almost immediate departure fuelled the rapidly spreading rumour that the boy was dead. Soon afterwards a hearse pulled into a parking space at the back of the store. Although normally the conspicuously sombre vehicle was garaged on the other side of 124th Street, on this occasion the driver needed to slip into Kress's to talk with his brother-in-law. But for the more and more agitated crowd of over a hundred African American shoppers congregated on the ground floor of Kress's what had happened was no longer rumour, it was a fact - a black boy had been killed. An angry woman yelled out that it was "just like down South where they lynch us."

Police officer after riot (Corbis Images)

As was so often the case in Harlem, the police did not help matters. The more the increasingly angry crowd demanded to learn what had happened to the boy, the more the police insisted that that was none of their business and then tried to shove the milling bystanders outside. After Kress’s was closed, with some difficulty, at 5.30pm, Harlem blacks continued to congregate on 125th Street. A rock was hurled through the window of Kress’s. Whenever someone tried to address the crowd on the street the police hauled him off his lamppost and arrested him, further antagonizing all and sundry. In a pattern that would repeat itself for most of the night, police harassment led to the crowd dispersing only to reassemble further down the street. Several thousand blacks were now involved and, as the Mayor’s Commission investigating the riot concluded, "From 125th street the crowds spread to Seventh Avenue and Lenox Avenue and the smashing of windows and looting of shops gathered momentum as the evening and night came on." By the end of the night 697 plate glass windows in some 300 business establishments were shattered at a cost to insurance companies of $147, 315, the police had detained 121 people, and 57 civilians and 7 police had been injured. And most tragically, Lloyd Hobbs, a black schoolboy on his way home from the cinema, had been shot and killed by the police.

Lenox Ave after the riot (Getty Images)

The following evening, according to a New York Times reporter, "thousands of curious white visitors thronged Harlem’s sidewalks." No longer did tourists come uptown solely for the nightlife, to listen to jazz or to gaze at the lithe bodies of Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy. Most of the "white visitors" wanted to see for themselves the evidence of what had happened the previous night, to experience city streets that the Times described as "alive with resentful Negroes," watching everything from front stoops and apartment windows. The 1935 riot was indeed a watershed in the history of Harlem.

Research Grants

  • ARC Discovery Grant, 2011-2015
  • University of Sydney Bridging Support Grant, 2010