There are differing accounts of the violence and mayhem. But one thing seems clear: it all started because of a rumor.
In March 1935, a Puerto Rican teen was caught shoplifting a pen knife at the Kress Five and Ten store (“known for its reluctance to hire black clerks,”) on West 125th Street.
“A Negro woman saw store employees search the thief; she became hysterical and shouted that the prisoner was being beaten by his captors, although he was not harmed, and soon the word got about that a Negro boy had been killed,” summarized The New York Times that week.
By evening, Communist organizations and a group calling itself the Young Liberators gathered outside the Kress store, handing out flyers that claimed the boy had been brutally beaten.
Crowds grew, and Harlem simmered with rage. Mayor La Guardia urged calm, but at about 6 p.m., rioting had begun.
“Roving bands of Negros, with here and there a sprinkling of white agitators, stoned windows, set fire to several stores, and began looting,” reported a separate Times story. “By 1:30 a.m., the worst of the rioting was ended, but sporadic outbreaks occurred up until 4 a.m.”
The next day, order was restored. “Overall, three African Americans were killed and nearly sixty were injured,” reports Blackpast.org. “Seventy five people, mostly blacks, were arrested by the police. The riot caused over $200 million in property damage.”
An investigation found that widespread discrimination, police aggression, and racial injustice contributed to the violence.
What’s called the Race Riot of 1935 was a forerunner of riots in 1943 and 1964, and has been deemed a sign that the “optimism and hopefulness of the Harlem Renaissance was dead.”
[Above photo by Sid Grossman: Eighth Avenue and 125th Street, that site of the riot, in 1939. Second photo: Bettmann/Corbis; the teenage shoplifter and the police. Top: New York Daily News newspaper headline]