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date: 17 April 2021

Harlem Riot of 1935free

Uprising in New York City caused by a combination of the economic effects of the Great Depression, job discrimination, and police brutality.
  • Robert Fay

A version of this article originally appeared in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.

On March 19, 1935, a white store owner in Harlem, New York accused a dark-skinned Latino boy, Lino Rivera, of shoplifting a knife. After a scuffle, in which Rivera, aged ten, struck a store clerk, the police arrested him. Rumors about the arrest and the police's treatment of the boy in custody spread throughout Harlem. Some people believed that the police had beaten or killed Rivera. Incited by street-corner speakers, people began to riot, initially attacking the store where Rivera had been arrested. They caused an estimated $2 million worth of damage, mostly to white-owned property. By the end of the rioting, three black people were dead and over 200 wounded.

The riot may have been set off by Rivera's arrest, but Harlem's African American residents were already tense with frustration about their dire social and economic conditions and their treatment at the hands of whites. The Great Depression was especially hard on Harlem, particularly because white store owners, a majority of whose businesses were frequented by African Americans, refused to hire blacks as clerks. In 1933, African Americans had picketed and boycotted such stores, but in 1935 the storeowners obtained an injunction to halt the picketing. Many Harlemites insisted that the police enforced the injunction with brutality.

After the riot, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed the Mayor's Commission on Conditions in Harlem, a biracial commission headed by the African American sociologist Edward Franklin Frazier , to investigate the situation and propose solutions. The commission's report, “The Negro in Harlem: A Report on Social and Economic Conditions Responsible for the Outbreak of March 19, 1935,” recommended antidiscrimination measures to be taken in city housing, relief agencies, the police department, and the hiring practices for municipal jobs. La Guardia appointed Alain Leroy Locke to implement the program and attempted to expand government services to Harlem, including public housing and facilities at Harlem hospital, and special training for police officers. Conditions, however, remained tense throughout the decade and well into the 1940s.


  • Naison, Mark. The Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression. University of Illinois Press, 1983.