It’s mid afternoon in Harlem on March 19, 1935. A 16 year old Puerto Rican/ Black boy by the name of Limo Rivera enters E.H. Kress and Company’s nickel and dime store on 125th Street. After a few minutes of wandering around the store, Rivera is spotted pilfering a ten cent pocketknife. The white storeowner and manager begin to subdue the boy by wrestling him to ground. Amidst the scuffle, the frightened young boy bites the manager’s hand and knocks over one of the store columns closest to the entrance. The noise from the altercation attracts the attention of bystanders and a crowd of begins to form around them. Eventually Rivera calms down and the police are called. A Mounted Patrolman arrives on the scene and asks the store manager if charges were going to be pressed, but he, as he has done many times before, advised the Patrolman to let the shoplifter go. To avoid the crowd or any questioning, the officer took the boy through the basement out the back exit and released him on 124th Street behind the store. While there was no information of the events that ensued, a hysterical black woman within the crowd cried out that “the boy was taken to the basement to be beaten up”.
Within moments an ambulance pulls up outside the store front to tend to the wounds of the store manager. Almost immediately, the rumor of Rivera’s death became viral. Minutes later, through sheer coincidence, a hearse pulls into a parking space across from the store. The driver was the store manager’s brother- in law. But to the perspective of the already agitated crowd of blacks, it was conformation of the rumor that Rivera was dead. Soon after, another upset woman within the crowd screamed “just like down south where they lynch us!”
The crowd began to grow increasingly more impatient and demanded to know what happened to the teenager. Police that arrived on the scene insisted that situation was none of the crowd’s business. The police began to try to navigate the crowd away from the store. After many unsuccessful attempts to disperse the crowd, the nickel and dime store closed it doors early at 5:30pm but by that time, the crowds were beginning to double. When a man tried to climb a lamppost to address the crowd, the police hauled him off and arrested him. This only further agitated the people that were gathered to take action. A rock was hurled through the window of Kress’s.
The police’s use of force and lack of information only provoked the crowd. Whenever police had success dispersing the crowds, they would reassemble further down the street. As hours passed, several thousand black people became were gathered and began to riot. Mayor Fioerllo LaGuardia commissioned a team to investigate the riot. Documents from that night read “From 125th Street crowds spread to Seventh Avenue and Lenox Avenue and the smashing of windows and looting of shops gathered momentum as the evening and night came on”. The Commission also stated “By the end of the night 697 (white owned) business establishments were shattered at a cost to insurance companies of $147,315, the police had detained 121 people, and 57 civilians and 7 police (officers) had been injured. And most tragically, Lloyd Hobbs, a black schoolboy on his way home from the cinema, had been shot and killed by the police”. The total record of damage was 2 million dollars.
A New York Times Reporter reported wrote “thousands of curious white visitors thronged Harlem’s sidewalks” Many of the “white visitors” wanted to see for themselves the evidence of what happened the previous night, they wanted the opportunity to experience what the New York Times described as “ (being) alive with resentful Negroes”. Just three days after, The New York Times reported that black leaders were trying to determine what caused the riot. They all established it was much more than just a young boy’s desire for a cheap knife. The collective explained “the basic cause (of the riot) is economic maladjustment segregating and discriminating against Negroes in the matter of employment”. In 1935, the height of the Great Depression, residents of Harlem experienced an unemployment rate of 50%. Money that was granted to cities for aid ultimately wound up in the pockets of white shop owners known for refusing to hire black workers.
Moreover, it was commonly known that the cost of rent and various goods were more expensive in black communities. Many black families had to double and triple up on apartment space. On average, one block contained as many as 3,000 to 4,000 residents. As a result, disease became a major issue. With a community of 200,000 people, Harlem Hospital was ill equipped with only 273 beds and 50 bassinets. These were the problems minorities were facing in 1935, they were tired, scared, malnourished and in poor health. They needed change.
The case of Limo Rivera was simply “straw that broke the camel’s back”. The Mayor’s committee went on to report “ The Negro in Harlem: A Report on Social and Economic Conditions Responsible for the Outbreak of March 19, 1935” in their last report they identify “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police and the racial segregation” as the main catalyst of racial tension in Harlem.
After reading this, ask yourself how much has changed? Look at this case side by side with that of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Do you see a trend? Nearly 100 years later, you can identify that this case is an early example of a model of racial violence that is reconditioned throughout the 20th century in America. This brand of institutional racism is deep rooted. It will go on to become a new form of war, not completely centered on interracial attacks but deflected at property and the police, but ultimately quarantined in black communities.