The riot of March 19, 1935 jarred the City enough for Mayor LaGuardia to appoint a commission to study the conditions in Harlem that were behind the anger. One year after the riot, the Commission concluded their investigation and issued their final report to the Mayor on March 19, 1936. The sometimes raucous and contentious hearings had been closely followed in the Black press and had engaged a broad swath of the public. Although it was published in The Amsterdam News, the final report was not issued by the City. Moreover, limited immediate actions were taken. Events in Europe soon overtook domestic issues. The Depression wound down in a blizzard of war mobilization, yet Black soldiers returning home in 1946 found little had changed in the ten years that passed since the report was completed. In fact, the police shooting of a Black soldier in 1943 sparked the 2nd Harlem riot, which closely echoed the first.
The conclusions of the Commission in that 1936 report are as relevant today as they were then. Without pulling any punches, they stated:
“On March 19, 1935, several thousands of Harlem’s citizens, after five years of the depression, which had made them feel more keenly than ever the injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and racial segregation, engaged in a riot against these intolerable conditions. This spontaneous outbreak, the immediate cause of which was a mere rumor concerning the mistreatment of a Negro boy, was symptomatic of pent-up feelings of resentment and insecurity. Today, extra police stand guard on the corners and mounted patrolmen ride through the streets of Harlem. To the citizens of Harlem, they symbolize the answer of the city authorities to their protest of March nineteenth. To Harlem this show of force simply signifies that property will be protected at any cost; but it offers no assurance that the legitimate demands of the citizens of the community for work and decent living conditions will be heeded.”
They warned: “And so long as these conditions persist, no one knows when they will lead to a recurrence, with possibly graver consequences, of the happenings of that night.”
The Commission throughout the report made clear that the “first and most fundamental problem of the Negro citizens of Harlem is the economic problem.” Low-wage jobs, racism in hiring practices, discrimination in education, and limited career advancement all worked hand-in-hand to keep Blacks down. “It is this factor more than any other factor that arouses so much resentment in the Negro worker.”
Held up for particular scorn were the public utilities and the civil service administration for their discriminatory practices. In addition, labor unions that refused to admit Blacks and the private industries that counted on competition among black and white workers to keep “white masses in check” were acknowledged.
The economic conditions forced a large percentage of Americans into dependance on government relief and, although the standardization of relief limited discrimination in aid, those agencies also operated under established systems of employment discrimination and placed Blacks into lower wage jobs regardless of their skills.
Poverty and discrimination in housing forced Blacks into “often dilapidated and dangerous living quarters which whites have abandoned.” Housing conferences and their resolutions had failed to achieve any concrete results, “Since building contractors do not find it profitable to construct homes for the low income groups among the whites, it is not surprising that Negro… can not find decent homes.” In addition, because landlords refused to rent to Blacks in many other parts of the city, “the Negro tenant is forced to pay exorbitant rentals because he can not escape.”
Poverty and poor living conditions were also judged to be the cause of high rates of tuberculosis and infant mortality. “The health agencies, as in the case of housing, were designed for a community with a different pattern of life and a different set of problems.” Harlem Hospital was supposed to be a training ground for Black physicians and nurses, but those health care professionals were restricted to working in Harlem instead of being offered positions at other Municipal hospitals and overall, the hospital was judged to be inadequate. “The lack of morals among the medical staff, the treatment accorded the patients, and the general management of the hospital have all indicated that standards are being set up to harmonize with the generally inferior status of the Negro as a distinct racial group.”
Although education should have been standardized throughout the city, “The disgraceful physical condition of the schools of Harlem as well as the lack of recreational facilities and the vicious environments that surround the schools, all indicate the presence of a poverty stricken and therefore helpless group of people in the community.” The community was “powerless to force the indifferent city authorities to afford adequate educational and recreational facilities.”
Juvenile delinquency was found to be no different than in other similarly impoverished and “disorganized” communities – no matter their racial composition. And yet, “in the case of Harlem we find few of the agencies that have an ameliorative influence upon juvenile delinquency.” The report found regarding “adult delinquency… no organized criminal gangs, but a preponderance of such crimes as flourished among poverty stricken and disorganized people.” However, the Committee saw “exploitation by outside interests, such as the policy racket and the location of institutions in the community for the pleasure and vices of whites…”
Even though criminal activity in Harlem was recognized to be a factor, the “Police Department should see to it that they do not become the persecutors and oppressors of the citizens of the community.” The police were found to “practice aggressions and brutalities upon the Harlem citizens not only because they are Negroes but because they are poor and therefore defenseless.” These abuses, including warrantless raids, disrespect for personal property, and rough physical treatment and beatings, were “doing more than anything else to create a disrespect for authority and to bring about mass resistance to the injustices suffered by the community.”
Finally, the Commission recognized that the “economic and social ills of Harlem which are deeply rooted in the very nature of our economic and social system,” could not be rapidly corrected. “Yet the Commission is convinced that, if the administration machinery set itself to prevent racial discrimination in such municipal institutions as the schools and the city’s subway system and impose, as far as possible, penalties upon private concerns and individuals that practiced racial discrimination, the people of Harlem would at least not feel that their economic and social ills were forms of racial persecution.” They then concluded with recommendations for specific immediate actions.