This Day In History: March 19

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A riot breaks out in Harlem when local residents suspect that a Black boy has been beaten, and possibly killed, by a white business owner. Although the rumors turn out to be false, the riot highlights the struggles of Harlem's historically Black community against discrimination during the Great Depression.

On March 19, 1935, Lino Rivera, a Black Puerto Rican teen from Harlem, was caught stealing a 10-cent penknife from Kress Five and Ten store on 125th Street. He briefly fought with a store employee before the police arrived. A crowd of concerned onlookers formed outside the store. The police and the store owner decided to let Rivera go, but they took him out the back door, so the crowd outside could not see him. An ambulance was called due to minor injuries sustained by the employee, but it left the scene empty. Coincidentally, there was also a hearse parked across the street. The crowd gathered outside assumed Rivera had been brutally beaten, and possibly killed.

Harlem community organizations, such as the Young Liberators and Young Communists League, led protests in the street in response. Harlemites, accustomed to collective action, had recently organized large protests of area businesses over their refusal to hire Black workers. The economic hardships of the Great Depression were amplified in Harlem and other African American urban communities, where unemployment ran 50 percent or higher. 

As the night wore on, the protests turned to looting. People smashed the windows of white-owned businesses on the commercial corridor of 125th Street.

Many modern scholars consider the 1935 Harlem riot the first modern race riot. Three people died and approximately 100 were injured, while some 125 agitators were arrested by police. The riot spurred New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia to appoint an interracial commission to investigate the grievances of the Harlem community and suggest remedies. Their report highlighted police aggression as a key factor behind the riot. Further, the report found that discontent in Harlem was due to “gross injustice and prejudice” in employment, education and housing.

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