On the afternoon of March 19, 1935, Lino Rivera, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican youth, was observed stealing a ten-cent pocket knife from the E. H. Kress 5-10-25 cent store designed by architect Seymour Burrell on 125th street in New York’s Harlem (the photograph above is taken on 124th Street behind the Kress building and the photograph below is a detail from the upper right hand corner of the building).
When his captor threatened to take Rivera into the store’s basement and “beat the hell out of him,” Rivera bit the employee’s hand. The manager intervened and the police were called, but Rivera was eventually released. In the meantime, a crowd had begun to gather outside around a woman who had witnessed Rivera’s apprehension and was shouting that Rivera was being beaten. When an ambulance showed up to treat the wounds of the employee who had been bitten, it appeared to confirm the woman’s story, and when the crowd took notice of a hearse parked outside of the store, the rumor began to circulate that Rivera had been beaten to death. The woman who had raised the alarm was arrested for disorderly conduct, the Kress 5-10-25 cent store was closed early, and the crowd was dispersed.
In the early evening, groups organized by the Young Communist League and a militant African-American civil rights group called the Young Liberators mounted a demonstration outside the store that quickly drew thousands of people. Handbills were distributed: One was headlined “CHILD BRUTALLY BEATEN”. Another denounced “the brutal beating of the 12 year old boy […] for taking a piece of candy.”
At some point, someone threw a rock, shattering the window of the Kress 5-10-25 cent store, and the destruction and looting began to spread east and west on 125th Street, targeting white-owned businesses between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. Some stores posted signs that read “COLORED STORE” or “COLORED HELP EMPLOYED HERE”. In the early hours of the morning, as the rioting spread north and south, Lino Rivera was picked up from his mother’s apartment and photographed with a police officer. The photographs were distributed in order to prove that Rivera had not been harmed. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia also had posters drawn up urging a return to peace.
By the end of the next day, the streets of Harlem were returned to order. District Attorney William C. Dodge blamed Communist incitement.Mayor LaGuardia ordered a multi-racial Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem headed by African-American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier to investigate the causes of the riot. The committee issued a report, “The Negro in Harlem: A Report on Social and Economic Conditions Responsible for the Outbreak of March 19, 1935,” which described the rioting as “spontaneous” with “no evidence of any program or leadership of the rioters.” The report identified “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation” as conditions which led to the outbreak of rioting. The report congratulated the Communist organizations as deserving “more credit than any other element in Harlem for preventing a physical conflict between whites and blacks.” Alain Locke was appointed to implement the report’s findings.
Jeffrey Stewart, professor of History at George Mason University, described the Harlem Riot of 1935 as “the first modern race riot,” adding that it “symbolized that the optimism and hopefulness that had fueled the Harlem Renaissance was dead.”
Sociologist Allen D. Grimshaw called the Harlem Riot of 1935 “the first manifestation of a ‘modern’ form of racial rioting,” citing three criteria:
- “violence directed almost entirely against property”
- “the absence of clashes between racial groups”
- “struggles between the lower-class Negro population and the police forces”
Whereas previous race riots had been characterized by violent clashes between groups of black and white rioters, subsequent riots would resemble the riot in Harlem.
Editors Note: seems the later “struggles between the lower-class Negro population and the police forces” is where we exist even today.