Harlem in Disorder


The outbreak of disorder in Harlem on the evening of March 19, 1935 immediately attracted national attention as the first large-scale racial violence in the United States in more than a decade, and as the first occurrence in the nation’s leading Black neighborhood. Historians subsequently seized on it as an outburst that illuminated the end of Harlem’s status as a center of cultural production and empowerment, akin to the interpretation of the racial disorders of the second half of the twentieth century as “an explosive, unproductive response to decades of northern racism.” That focus on underlying grievances, not the events of a disorder, has been widely adopted as an approach in the study of collective racial violence in the United States. Since the 1960s, scholars have recognized that the outbreak in Harlem also marked a beginning: the first instance of a new form of racial violence characterized by Black residents attacking property rather than white men and women attacking Black residents, who resisted that violence, as was characteristic of outbreaks earlier in the twentieth century. However, that interpretation was not based on any detailed analysis of what happened on March 19 and the early hours of March 20. While historians generally acknowledge the multifaceted nature of racial violence, in keeping with the general approach of historical argument, their interpretations have involved selecting one thread to emphasize. Such methods necessarily simplify the character of racial violence and obscure the balance and relationship between different forms of violence.

This study reverses that approach and analyses the details of what happened and where those events occurred to understand the complex character of the disorder in Harlem in 1935 and how it fits in the broader history of racial violence in the United States. In doing so, it responds to Amanda Seligman’s call in her award-winning article on disorders in 1960s Chicago to “look inside a riot and examine both the actions of participants and the responses of their neighbors.” “Cracked open,” disorders can reveal a broad range of actors pursuing a variety of goals rather than a community unanimous in sentiment, “periods of action punctuated by rest and quiet” in rhythms that were “irregular and staccato” rather than continuous activity.

The rich and extensive literature on other racial disorders in the twentieth-century United States includes studies that examine the events of disorders in more detail than the existing accounts of the events in Harlem in 1935. However, those studies are more selective than this project in what events they include, focusing on specific categories of events, typically deaths, and those involving large groups of people. In part, those limitations are imposed by the scale and duration of the violence being examined: Gerald Horne’s powerful extended narrative of the 1965 Watts disorder, which couples extensive accounts of the thirty-four deaths with more general statements and aggregates about incidents involving attacks on property, examines an outbreak that lasted six days and involved 1,032 injuries and 3,438 arrests. Examining only one evening, and only 128 arrests, allowed me to take the approach of historians like Horne one step further and analyze every event that could be identified in the available sources to produce a more comprehensive picture. Such a granular approach provides the basis for a data-driven analysis that identifies and contextualizes patterns quantitatively. Cheryl Greenberg and other historians of collective racial violence, most notably Senechal de la Roche, Dominic Capeci and Martha Wilkerson, and Sidney Fine, have pursued a data-driven approach in analyzing participants but not in relation to events. The granular data about events developed in this approach also allows for the locations of the violence to be mapped. While almost every study of a racial disorder includes a map, none are visualizations of data related to events of the detail and extent employed in this project. Instead, those maps show only the neighborhoods under study, occasionally including landmarks and flashpoints of violence. The maps in this study show the details of the ebb and flow of its spread and incidence across time. 

What this analysis reveals is that the disorder in Harlem was not simply an 'economic riot' or attack on the neighborhood's businesses. It also involved violence, in which Black women as well as Black men participated, targeted specifically at white-owned businesses, intermittent attacks by Black residents on white men and women they encountered in the neighborhood, and police violence against both Black men and women who participated in the disorder and those who were spectators. In this more complex picture, the actions of Black residents go beyond protests directed against economic discrimination and more broadly challenge white economic and political power. This violence threatened the racial order that had been imposed on Harlem.

This study extends beyond March 20 to trace how the complex violence of the events of the disorder was distorted, diminished, and marginalized in the courts and the investigation launched by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. As the police response to the disorder had been ineffective and indiscriminate, the cases prosecuted in the courts encompassed little of the nature and scale of the violence and many of those arrested could ultimately only be charged for being in the streets near acts of violence rather than participating in them. At the same time, just one case of police violence during the disorder reached the courts, which the grand jury voted to not prosecute. Only the actions for damages that Harlem's white business owners brought against the city offered glimpses of the scale of the violence against property. Only the events in and around the Kress store that triggered the disorder and the fatal police shooting of Lloyd Hobbs, a sixteen-year-old Black boy, received attention from the thirteen Black and white New Yorkers who undertook an investigation of conditions in Harlem for the mayor. Neither their public hearings nor their published reports addressed violence against white men and women or provided details of the damage to property. Most of Harlem's Black leaders and their white allies did not want to pursue the broad challenge to white power mounted during the disorder.

To effectively present this argument, Harlem in Disorder takes the form of a multi-layered, hyperlinked narrative that connects different scales of analysis: individual events, aggregated patterns, and a chronological narrative. The expansive scope of a digital publication allows for the inclusion of the details of the events on which the argument relies to an extent far beyond what would be possible in print. The organization of that material in layers allows for the argument to be elaborated in a familiar linear format while also allowing readers to explore the details from which it is constructed when, and to the extent, that they want.

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