In 1943, the United States, heavily engaged in the fight against Nazism and fascism in World War II, was also dealing with a serious conflict at home. Black Americans across the country faced segregation, discrimination and economic hardship. Though the struggle for equality was heavily concentrated in the Deep South, black people in the North faced debilitating racial oppression as well.

Harlem, a neighborhood celebrated for its conclave of black artists and scholars, had undergone a dramatic demographic shift in the decades leading up to World War II. According to census data, in 1910, black people represented 10 percent of the Central Harlem population, while white people comprised 90 percent. By 1940, after millions of black people had migrated from the South for a better life up North, the numbers had reversed.

Central Harlem’s black population skyrocketed to 89 percent, while the white population dipped to 10 percent. Yet, despite the white flight, the majority of businesses in Harlem remained white-owned and housing and job prospects for black Americans became continuously bleak.

Altercation at the Braddock Hotel Leads to Shooting

On the evening of August 1, 1943, years of racial oppression in Harlem erupted in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel located on West 126 Street. Once a popular destination for black celebrities and musicians in the 1920s, the hotel had declined in stature and developed a reputation for prostitution. 

That night, a black woman named Marjorie Polite, checked into the establishment. Unhappy with her room, Polite requested another one, but it too didn’t meet her standards. After she received a refund for her accommodations and checked out, Polite asked for the $1 tip back, which she allegedly had given to the elevator operator. After he refused to return it, Polite began to argue.

James Collins, a white policer officer who patrolled the hotel, reportedly grabbed Polite’s arm and tried to arrest her for disorderly conduct. Florine Roberts, a guest at the hotel who was a domestic worker from Connecticut in town visiting her son, witnessed the confrontation and tried to help Polite. When her son, Robert Bandy, a soldier in the 703 Military Police Unit 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, a professor emeritus from Missouri State University, describes the evening’s events, including an account of the different versions that Collins and Bandy gave about the altercation. The official police report stated that Bandy threatened and attacked Collins, who in turn shot Bandy in the arm after he attempted to flee. Bandy, however, stated that he intervened when Collins pushed Polite and threw his nightstick, which Bandy caught. When he hesitated to return the weapon, Collins shot him. Police came to the scene and both men were taken to the hospital.

Rumors Sweep Through Harlem

A rumor rapidly spread that a white police officer shot and killed Bandy, when in fact, he was treated for a superficial wound. Crowds of Harlem residents, unaware of the truth, gathered around the neighborhood, enraged that a white patrolman had killed a black soldier.

“The unconfirmed rumors swept like a wildfire across Harlem,” says Michael Flamm, a history professor at Ohio Wesleyan University and author of In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime. “They ignited a tinder that was already existing in the community. There was frustration in the sense that black Americans were fighting and dying to win a war against fascism overseas, while racism remained unchecked in the United States.”

Pervasive Inequities Fueled Frustration, Looting

Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
Police detain three teenage boys on 145th Street and Eighth Avenue, New York. 

People took to the streets, looting and vandalizing property—similar to the Harlem Riot of 1935, which marked a new form of uprising, in that it wasn’t an interracial fight between opposing groups, but an attack on property and business, says Capeci. 

Unlike previous riots of the early 20th century that typically involved violent white mobs descending onto black neighborhoods, the Harlem Riot of 1935 and 1943 marked a turning point when black people expressed their outrage over their conditions by attacking property, another representation of inequality in their community.

“There were black shoppers, but there were no blacks being employed,” says Capeci. “Blacks are basically responding to this build-up of unfairness as they see it. All of these snubs, all of these put downs, all of these mistreatments. You're feeling them in any number of ways, from the job you have, to the income you don't have.”

The amount of damages in the riot was estimated to be upwards of $5 million in today's dollars, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands in 1943, with mostly white-owned businesses destroyed.

“What do these businesses mean?” says Nikki Jones, a professor in African American Studies at University of California, Berkeley. “They could be seen as a symbol of the exploitation, both economic exploitation and social exploitation. Another place in which black people are alienated and excluded.”

New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had already 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 8,000 National Guardsmen and some volunteers. The rioting, contained to Harlem alone, lasted for 12 hours. Six black residents were killed by the police and approximately 200 people were injured.

Harlem would experience another riot in 1964.

WATCH: A Distant Shore: African Americans of D-Day on HISTORY Vault