How the Police Shooting of a Black Soldier Triggered the 1943 Harlem Riots
In 1943, the United States, strongly engaged in the fight against Nazism and Fascism during the Second World War, also faced a serious conflict at home. Black Americans across the country have faced segregation, discrimination and economic hardship. Although the struggle for equality was strongly concentrated in the Great South, blacks in the North were also faced with debilitating racial oppression.
Harlem, a neighborhood famous for its conclave of black artists and scholars, had undergone dramatic demographic change in the decades before World War II. According to census data, in 1910, blacks made up 10% of the population of Central Harlem, while whites made up 90%. In 1940, after millions of blacks migrated from the South for a better life in the North, the numbers were reversed.
The black population of Central Harlem soared to 89%, while the white population dropped to 10%. However, despite the escape of whites, the majority of Harlem businesses remained owned by whites and the housing and job prospects for black Americans became bleak.
An altercation at the Braddock Hotel leads to a shooting
Upset and flamboyant, this car was one of many that were destroyed during the unrest that swept through the north end of Manhattan.
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On the evening of August 1, 1943, years of racial oppression in Harlem broke out in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel on 126 West Street. Once a popular destination for celebrities and black musicians in the 1920s, the hotel had declined in stature and developed a reputation for prostitution.
That night, a black woman named Marjorie Polite entered the establishment. Unhappy with her room, Polite asked for another one, but she also didn’t meet her standards. After receiving a reimbursement for her accommodation and checking, Polite asked for the tip of $ 1, which she allegedly gave to the elevator operator. After refusing to return it, Polite began to argue.
James Collins, a white police officer who patrolled the hotel, allegedly grabbed Polite’s arm and attempted to arrest him for disorderly conduct. Florine Roberts, a Connecticut domestic worker who was in town to visit her son, witnessed the confrontation and tried to help Polite. When his son Robert Bandy, a soldier from Military Police Unit 703 in Jersey City, arrived at the hotel to take his mother to dinner, he saw the altercation and intervened.
In his book, The Harlem riot of 1943, Dominic Capeci, professor emeritus of Missouri State University, describes the events of the evening, including an account of the different versions that Collins and Bandy gave on the altercation. The official police report said that Bandy had threatened and attacked Collins, who in turn had shot him in the arm after trying to flee. Bandy, however, said he intervened when Collins pushed Polite and threw his baton, which Bandy caught. When he hesitated to hand over the gun, Collins shot him. Police came to the scene and the two men were taken to the hospital.
Rumors cross Harlem
Rumors quickly spread that a white police officer shot and killed Bandy, when in fact he had been treated for a minor wound. Crowds of Harlem residents, unaware of the truth, gathered in the neighborhood, enraged that a white patrolman had killed a black soldier.
“Unconfirmed rumors have swept Harlem like wildfire,” said Michael Flamm, professor of history at Ohio Wesleyan University and author of In the heat of summer: the 1964 New York riots and the war on crime. “They ignited a tinder that already existed in the community. There was frustration in the sense that black Americans fought and died to win a war against fascism abroad, while racism remained uncontrolled in the United States. ”
Pervasive inequality fueled frustration and looting
People took to the streets, looting and vandalizing property – as with the 1935 Harlem riot, which marked a new form of uprising, in that it was not an interracial struggle between opposing groups but of an attack on property and business, says Capeci. .
Unlike previous riots in the early 20th century, which generally involved violent white crowds descending into black neighborhoods, the Harlem riot of 1935 and 1943 marked a turning point when blacks expressed outrage at their conditions by attacking property , another representation of inequalities in their community. .
“There were black buyers, but no black was used,” says Capeci. “Black people essentially react to this accumulation of injustice as they see it. All these snubs, all these flaps, all this mistreatment. You experience them in many ways, from the job you have to the income you don’t have. “
The amount of damage in the riot has been estimated at more than $ 5 million in today’s dollars, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands in 1943, with businesses mostly owned by whites destroyed.
“What do these companies mean?” says Nikki Jones, professor of African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “They could be seen as a symbol of exploitation, both of economic exploitation of social exploitation. Another place where blacks are alienated and excluded. “
New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had previously mandated riot training for city police in response to the devastating riot that had occurred in Detroit months before, deployed 6,600 police officers to Harlem , who were joined by 8000 national guards and a few volunteers. The riots, contained in Harlem alone, lasted 12 hours. Six black residents were killed by the police and around 200 people were injured.
Harlem suffered another riot in 1964.
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