Go to the U of M home page


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Upcoming Exhibit: Commission on the Harlem Riot, 1935

In our upcoming fall exhibit, "Law and the Struggle for Racial Justice," several items are reports and petitions that reflect on the causes and remedies of social injustice. All of these, including a subcommittee report written in the wake of the Harlem riot in 1935, offer recommendations for reform that still resonate today.   

The Harlem riot of 1935 has been called by several scholars the first modern race riot. A Black Puerto Rican youth, Lino Rivera, was apprehended by a Harlem, New York, shop employee for stealing a penknife. The boy bit the employee but was later released by police. A false rumor that Rivera had been beaten to death in the shop led to a riot the same night, during which more than one hundred were injured and arrested, and three African Americans were killed. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia set up a biracial commission of noted figures to investigate the causes of the riot, likely at the recommendation of Walter White, then secretary of the NAACP.

The commission included Eunice Hunton Carter, the first African-American woman prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's office; Morris Ernst, co-general counsel of the ACLU; A. Philip Randolph, the prominent labor and civil rights leader; and Countee Cullen, the poet and novelist, among others.    

The commission set up several subcommittees, tasked with reports in areas including Crime and Police, Housing, Education and Employment Discrimination. More than 150 witnesses testified at a series of public and private hearings before the commission. 

Published a year later, the resulting report was more than 100 pages. It outlined the events of March 19th that led to the riot and recommended reforms by the City government in Harlem in relation to housing, health care, education and policing. 
The subcommittee report displayed in the upcoming exhibit is a separate typescript addressed to Mayor LaGuardia by Arthur Garfield Hays, a noted lawyer and the subcommittee chair. One other copy of the report is recorded, held at the New York Public Library. The report discusses the events of the riot and subsequent incidents involving police. Just as the overall report acknowledged the professionalism of many officers involved in the events, the subcommittee report thanks the police chief and several officers for cooperating with the investigative commission. 

Nevertheless, the report addresses the incidence of police brutality during and after the riot, citing particular officers for avoidable and unnecessary deaths and other instances of violent misconduct. Among remedies, the subcommittee recommends that police be better trained on the limits of their authority to use force and on due process rights; that rapport with the community should be fostered rather than antagonism; and that greater accountability was necessary. Regarding the last, the report recommends the creation of a biracial committee in Harlem to receive and evaluate complaints of police misconduct, then to report them directly to the office of the Commissioner of Police. The subcommittee advises that resulting criminal misconduct cases be punished not only internally but turned over to the District Attorney's Office for prosecution. The report concludes by arguing, as the general report would examine in greater detail, that in Harlem the wider social inequalities faced by the Black community in relation to housing and rent, employment and schools also had to be addressed in order to restore social order. 

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.