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Thursday, June 25, 2020

What caused the Harlem Riot of 1935?

By Anthony Ruggiero
Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved by the author

Race and the discrimination between them have always been a stain in the history of the United States. The conflict between the two themes has been a very common phenomenon over the years. One of the most significant events of the 20th century, the Harlem Riot of 1935, has manifested these two factors.

The initial riot took place in Harlem, New York on March 19th, 1935. The riot erupted when rumors spread that police apprehended a 16-year-old black-Puerto Rican boy named Lino Rivera, for stealing in a store. Witnesses had assumed that the police killed the boy when they saw a hearse pull up to the store. Although it might seem strange that a full-scale riot ensued due to this issue, it was the circumstances of the people of Harlem who lived there during that time period that caused it. The Harlem Riot was a direct result of years of racial tension, massive unemployment, the idea of black pride, and the influence of Sufi Abdul Humid. Harlem was a diverse area filled with many ethnicities; the Jewish community was particularly dominant. The white community clashed with the expanding black community. The black community soon faced struggles in things such as housing. During this time, New York was also feeling the effects of the Great Depression, which left many jobless. This also greatly affected the black community in Harlem who were already faced with discrimination. The idea of Black Nationalism spread rapidly which stressed the idea of creating black jobs. This also would lead to Sufi Abdul Humid's rise to prominence as he backed the idea of gaining white-dominated jobs.

At one point in time, the area of Harlem was heavily dominated by the Jewish community. The area was even nicknamed, “Jewish Harlem.”[1] However, a massive influx of blacks into the community put an end to that. Black communities during this time period were scattered along streets such as West 130th street and West 146th that collectively became known as, “Darktown.” As the black community began to expand into white communities so did resistance and violence. For example, Adolph B. Rosenfield who was an employee of the Property Owner’s Improvement Association, was in some ways successful in a resistance movement to keep blacks out of the area by 90th street, 110th street, Riverside Drive, and Central Park West during the 1910s. In the 1920’s, Jews also participated in efforts lead by Harry Goodstein and the West Side Property Owner’s Association to keep the black community from advancing to 127th street. Many Jews simply left Harlem in protest of the growing black community and moved to areas such as the Bronx and Brooklyn. This meant that the city’s population began to decline and lost revenue. Despite this, with the declining number of Jewish people in the community tensions between the Jews and Blacks began to lessen.[2]However, the years of discrimination had left its mark on the black population.

The years of racial discrimination greatly affected the black communities abilities to gain jobs and income. Many of the establishments were white-owned. In a survey of business establishments it was determined that only twenty-four percent of these establishments hired black workers for low paying jobs, and fifty-nine percent did not hire black workers at all.[3]According to a study made by the Milbank Memorial Fund in 1933, the family income for black families declined from $1,808 in 1929 to $1,019 in 1932. Black skilled workers suffered the greatest percentage during this time with forty-nine percent loss in income.[4] Unskilled workers also suffered greatly as well as they had only made $1,600 in 1929, which was already below the average income rate. The deductions of income lead to many housing issues for blacks in Harlem. A New York Urban Team reported that forty-eight percent of blacks in Harlem paid two times as much in their income in rent just for a standard four-bedroom apartment compared to a white tenant in New York City. Many blacks had to move into lodgers, which lead to much overcrowding. [5]

This led too many blacks living in Harlem questioning white domination of black communities during this time period. This resulted in many blacks demanding the creation black jobs headed by black residents. To convince other blacks that this newfound nationalism could be effective, they actually used Jews as an example. Booker T. Washington stated, “get money, like the Jew…who now has recognition because he has entwined himself about America in a business and industrial way.” However, this idea was ultimately unsuccessful. Many all-black jobs were low revenue jobs, for example: barber shops, beauty salons, and taxicabs. An example of a company that failed, which also negatively affected the black community in Harlem, was the closing of the A.P.H Taxicab Company in 1932, which was the largest privately black-owned company in New York. It was estimated that six hundred Harlem residents lost their jobs.[6]Another major reason the all-black business plan did not work was black shoppers still preferred to shop at Jewish-owned establishments that were in Harlem. Jewish-owned businesses offered a more variety of goods at cheaper prices. During the Great Depression, these Jewish-owned businesses offered credit to black buyers, which meant they had a longer period of time to pay for items they were unable to provide money for at that time. A woman from Harlem stated that her mother always suggested she continue to buy from Jews, because “they let us have anything we need even when we don’t have any money”,[7] thus proving that white dominance in the black community was still intact.

The idea of creating all-black jobs was essentially a failure. There were either not enough jobs or they failed completely. The only other alternative was to gain white-collar jobs in white-dominated establishments. This is when Sufi Abdul Humid began gaining a prominence as a leader of this idea at the beginning of 1932. Humid relocated to Harlem from Chicago, after having success in the city in a different jobs campaign which he and the Chicago Whip, a black newspaper at that time, had run. Although the reasons are unknown as to why he relocated to Harlem, he certainly made his presence known. With his tall body structure and flashy appearance, Humid was often seen at the forefront of rallies on 125th street, which is the center of Harlem’s stores for clothing or other commercial items. Humid urged his followers not to purchase items from white stores, that would not hire them for jobs. At one point, Humid would go along the stores on 125th street and exclaim, “Share the Jobs!” Humid was somewhat successful in this approach. In June of 1934, Martin Weinstein, the new owner of Koch’s Department stores declared that his clerical staff would be one-third black workers. The original owner and founder, H.C.F Koch, had closed at one time Harlem’s largest department store, in protest to the expanding black community. However, it seems the primary reason Weinstein made this statement was to avoid confrontation with Humid and his growing followers.[8]

All of these issues erupted on March 19th, 1935. A 16-year-old black, Puerto Rican boy named, Lino Rivera, stole a penknife from the Kress Five and Ten store on 125th Street. Both the store owner and the assistant manager witnessed Rivera steal the knife and managed to capture him before he was able to getaway. A police officer, who was patrolling the area, was called to the scene to investigate. When asked if he wanted to press charges, the store owner instructed the officer to let Rivera go. In order to avoid the large groups of people who were surrounding the store, the police officer took Rivera out through the back entrance of the store. When one of the witnesses saw the police officer take Rivera away, she shouted that they were going to the back of the store to beat Rivera. An ambulance arrived later to take care of the store owner and the assistant manager, who suffered injuries while trying to apprehend Rivera themselves. When the ambulance left empty, many of the people surrounding the store assumed that Rivera had been killed. Shortly after the ambulance left, a hearse parked across the street from the store. The driver was actually visiting his brother-in-law, who was inside the store. The gathering crowds immediately assumed that the hearse was there to take away the body of Rivera. The police officers who arrived at the store attempted to persuade the growing crowds that Rivera was still alive. However, the people began to demand that the police bring Rivera out of the store, but police officers objected to the crowd's demand and claimed that the situation was under control and it was none of their concern. This angered the crowd and rumors spread through Harlem that the police had killed the boy. The result was large organized mobs that would destroy and loot stores.[9]

The riot was ended the following day when the New York Governor of the time, Herbert Lehman, assured white store owners that the situation was under control and handled. During the riot three African Americans were killed, and over sixty were reported injured. Seventy-five people were also arrested, and it was also reported that a majority of these people were black. The riot also cost the city $200 million in property damages.[10] The Mayor of the city during that time period, Fiorello La Guardia, attempted to improve the conditions for blacks by gaining them jobs in hospitals and other government-related jobs following the riot but could take away all the burdens that the black community still faced in Harlem.[11]

Although the Harlem Riot of 1935 can be viewed as a misinterpretation by a group of people who were assuming that the police had killed Lino Rivera when they had not, their assumptions and actions can be understood by the circumstances prior to the riot. Years of racial discrimination, poverty, and influences by others in the black community culminated in this chaotic event that rocked New York City in the early twentieth century. With the outcome being no resolution for the black community, one thing was clear: that the problems between the black and white communities were far from over.

About the author: Anthony Ruggiero currently a High School History Teacher in New York City, New York. In addition to teaching, I have been published in several magazines and blogs. For example, I have been published previously in History Is Now magazine, Historic-U.K.magazine, Tudor Life magazine, Discover Britain magazine, The Odd Historian magazine, the Culture-Exchange blog, Inside History magazine and The Freelance History Writer blog. Through continuing to research and write, I am able to share my findings with my students in order to engage them in their learning and help them succeed. My work can also be viewed on my Twitter handle: @Anthony10290122


[1] Winston McDowell, “Race and Ethnicity During the Harlem Jobs Campaign, 1932-1935,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol.69, No.3/4 (Summer-Autumn, 1984), pg.135.
[2] Ibid, 136. 
[3] Winston McDowell, “Race and Ethnicity During the Harlem Jobs Campaign, 1932-1935,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol.69, No.3/4 (Summer-Autumn, 1984), pg.137
[4] Ibid, 136.
[5] Ibid, 137.
[6] Ibid, 137.
[7] Ibid, 138.
[8] Ibid, 138.
[9] Wang, Tabitha. "Harlem Race Riot (1935) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed." Harlem Race Riot (1935) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <>.
[10] Wang, Tabitha. "Harlem Race Riot (1935) | 
[11] The Editors of Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. "Harlem Race Riot of 1935 (United States History)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <>.

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