State Violence and Black Resistance during World War I and the 1920s

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State Violence and Black Resistance during World War I and the 1920s

By Shannon King

The fact that there is little or no gang labor gives Harlem Negroes the opportunity for expansion and individual contacts with the life and spirit of New York. A thousand Negroes from Mississippi put to work as a gang in a Pittsburgh steel mill will for a long time remain a thousand Negroes from Mississippi. Under the conditions that prevail in New York they would be all within six months become New Yorkers. The rapidity with which Negroes become good New Yorkers is one of the marvels to observers . . . One of the principal factors in the race riot in Chicago in 1919 was the fact that at that time there were 12,000 Negroes employed in gangs in the stockyards. There was considerable race feeling in Harlem at the time of the hegira of white residents due to the “invasion,” but the feeling of course, is no more.1

James Weldon Johnson, “The Making of Harlem”

In 1925 when James Weldon Johnson published “The Making of Harlem,” Harlem had yet to experience a race riot comparable to those in East St. Louis, Chicago, and Tulsa. According to Johnson, there were no race riots in Harlem because, “Employment of Negroes in New York is diversified.” Blacks in Harlem, therefore, no longer remained “merely ‘Harlem Negroes’; astonishingly soon they become New Yorkers.” 2 Johnson’s history of Harlem misrepresents and mischaracterizes the history of race relations and violence in United States history. He suggests that blacks’ increased presence caused a disruption in social relations. Once they assimilated, he assumed, interracial violence would cease. In Harlem, and throughout black Manhattan, interracial violence arose on a daily basis, though not at the magnitude of race riots in other municipalities.3 Civil societal and state violence was a constant threat, for racial tensions between blacks and whites persisted.

In August 1900, the Tenderloin district was the site of a race riot that set the tone for the relationships among blacks, whites, and the police for most of the twentieth century. On August 12th, on Forty-First Street and Eighth Avenue, police officer Robert J. Thorpe in civilian clothes attempted to arrest a black woman, who he thought was “soliciting.”4 Unaware that the white man was a police officer, her husband Arthur Harris ran to her aid. Officer Thorpe struck Harris with a club, and Harris retaliated with a penknife, fatally wounding the officer. On August 15th and then on the 16th (the day of Thorpe’s funeral) the police and white gangs wreaked havoc on black neighborhoods throughout the Tenderloin. Black pedestrians from 34th street to 42nd street along Broadway, Seventh, and Eighth Avenues were attacked. “They [police] ran with the crowds in pursuit of their prey; they took defenseless men who ran to them for protection and threw them to the rioters, and in many cases they beat and clubbed men and women more brutally than the mob did."5 In retaliation, blacks armed themselves, while the black elite formed the “The Citizens’ Protective League.” Although the CPL persistently solicited the protection and cooperation of Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck, the mayor placed all the authority of the investigation in the control of the Police board, who only legitimized their officers’ actions. In each case, the state—the police, the mayor, and the Police board—neglected to protect black citizens’ rights. As Frank Moss, the compiler of the affidavits of black victims, lamented, “The ‘investigation’ was a palpable sham.”6

In the 1900 race riot, both civilians and the police attacked the black community. The police masked their role in the riot as conduits and initiators of racism. The 1901 police report stated that the police’s “Prompt and vigorous action…kept the situation under control.”7 This characterization suggests that the state intervened in the race riot as an independent entity enforcing “law and order,” though they actually initiated and exacerbated violence upon blacks. The state, therefore, enforced a racial hierarchy, which persisted as whites fled their communities. Blacks did not become “New Yorkers”; they remained “Harlem Negroes.”

Historical studies on race riots have demonstrated that interracial violence was the result of black settlement into white neighborhoods and occupational competition.8 This chapter argues that violence was constitutive of racism rather than the result of social and economic forces. Interracial violence in black Manhattan suggests that blacks consistently lived under the threat of violence. The potential for interracial conflict on the ground—in the neighborhood, the workplace, in the saloon, and on public transportation—was more dynamic than Johnson’s analysis indicates.

This essay examines interracial violence in Harlem during the neighborhood’s transformation from a white to a black community, 1917-1929. Through focusing on the relationships among white civilians, the police, and the black community, I delineate the ways in which blacks responded to civil societal and state violence. Interracial violence within civil society was engendered by white civilians’ reactions to blacks as competitors in the labor and housing market. While socio-economic forces are attributed to the prevalence of violence in black and white civilian confrontations, these forces can not solely account for the conspicuity of violence in segregated black communities once whites fled. An analysis of the coercive arm of the state, however, explains the continuity of violence in African American and Afro-Caribbean experiences as racialized subjects. Frantz Fanon argues that within colonial societies, “it was the policeman…who are the official, instituted go betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.”9 Historians and contemporaries mischaracterized race relations because police violence was often semipublic—not part of the “public transcript”—although it took place in public spaces and was known throughout the black community.10 The semipublic character of state violence and surveillance was perpetrated in tandem with overt or “public” acts of violence. As historian Joe W. Trotter Jr. aptly states, “Afro-Americans were both overpoliced and underprotected in their lives and property.”11 For black New Yorkers, then, the police was an “army of occupation” rather than bearers of “law and order.” 12

The accumulation of insults, harassment, searches, and seizures induced blacks to arm themselves for self-defense and sometimes, violently attack the police. In Harlem, these bouts with the police, and the distrust that ensued, translated into public articulations of antiracism and self-preservation that were reflected in New Negro radicalism during and after the World War I; these conditions raised Harlem’s racial consciousness, persuading Harlemites to defend themselves as well as other blacks in their environs, so that an attack on one denizen was an attack on the entire community. Harlem developed a political culture—an infrapolitics—reflected in their daily acts of resistance that had been cultivated earlier in the century throughout black Manhattan.13 The essay contends that the persistence of violence throughout black Manhattan perpetuated by white civilians and reinforced by the police mobilized and politicized blacks, individually and collectively, to defend their own race.

“Hoodlums in and out of police uniforms”

The Great War caused a dramatic demographic shift in Harlem, as in other northern cities. Since the turn of the century, US Southern and Caribbean migrants traveled to Harlem seeking better living conditions, as blacks moved northward from other neighborhoods in black Manhattan. Although the WWI had not begun, Harlem’s black population outpaced the rest of black Manhattan. By 1911, according to the New York Urban League, “San Juan Hill, or Columbus Hill, has became a less desirable district in which to live, while the Negro population has doubled in itself many times in Harlem.”14 Between 1910 and 1920, black Manhattan expanded from 60, 534 to 109, 133, increasing 80.3 per cent.15 WWI intensified the migration process, facilitating Harlem’s transformation from a white to a black neighborhood. By 1930, there were 224,670 in black Manhattan, an increase of 105.9 per cent.16

Although W.E. B. Dubois’ call for African Americans to volunteer for the war in the spring of 1917 was met with skepticism, many blacks enlisted in the military to demonstrate their loyalty to the US; it was argued that service in the military during the US’ war for democracy could be used as a weapon to claim their rights. In Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church told his congregation:

This is the proper time for us to make a special request for our constitutional rights as American citizens. The ten million colored people in this country were never so badly needed as now…As a race we ought to let our government know that if it wants us to fight foreign powers we must be given some assurance first of better treatment at home…Why should not the colored Americans make a bloodless demand at this time for the rights we have been making futile efforts to secure [from a] government that has persistently stood by with folded arms while we were oppressed and murdered?17

While Powell encouraged participation in the war, his tone was evident of blacks’ waning faith in the US. Harlemites, nevertheless, responded by selling Liberty bonds and marching in parades, confirming their loyalty and demonstrating their pride as representative citizens. “Many Harlemites could not have been more prouder that their community had been chosen as the base for the first black military unit ever recognized in New York State.”18

Several phenomena, within and without, jolted Harlem’s patriotic mood. Blacks’ experience in Europe during the war, as segregated soldiers in battle, forced them to question their already fleeting allegiance to their country. Simultaneously, race riots erupted throughout the US during the war and until the early 1920s. In Harlem, New Negro radicalism emerged, politicized by the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and especially the race riots. According to Harlem politician J. Raymond Jones, “in World War I and throughout the 1920s, there were… the beginnings of a political renaissance.”19 Hubert Harrison, the “Father of Harlem Radicalism,” was instrumental to the politicization of the black community. Harrison, who could be found on street corners prior to the war dazzling black and white pedestrians with his encyclopedic knowledge, inspired younger radicals and provided the template in which two streams of black radicalism—black nationalism and black socialism—flowed throughout Harlem.20

In the midst of the internal and external forces politicizing the black community, state and civil societal violence erupted throughout black Manhattan. 1917 inter-racial violence emerged in several black neighborhoods before and during the East St. Louis race riot. Similarly, throughout the 1920s, Prohibition, Jazz music, prostitution, and gambling intensified police surveillance in Harlem. These conditions confirmed the community’s right to defend themselves and to retaliate against violence. The seeds of the Harlem’s resistance were sowed and cultivated throughout black Manhattan since the turn of the century and the US South and Caribbean, but it was after the war that the New Negro emerged in Harlem.

On May 26, 1917, Benjamin Hamilton and a white friend went into a saloon at Sixty Fifth Street and Amsterdam Avenue and ordered two drinks of lemon seltzer. Both were charged fifty cents. Hamilton refused to pay and told his friend not to pay and they left the saloon. A group of white men followed them out the saloon and attacked Hamilton. Frank Higman, a member of the Home Defense Guard, attempted to intervene, but he was also beaten. Hamilton escaped. A white crowd calling out “thief,” followed Hamilton who entered Bobb’s saloon. Gabriel Gollote, another member of the Home Defense Guard, followed Hamilton into the saloon, and he was attacked by a group of blacks and thrown out. Police officer Mirzio rescued Gollote until reserves arrived in response to the blown whistle.21

Simultaneously, between Sixty- Second and Sixty- Third and Amsterdam Avenue, blacks and whites brawled, using revolvers, bricks, rocks, and razors in the streets. The police attempted to clear the streets, but they were unsuccessful until reserves arrived from several police stations. Home Defense Guards and white “volunteers” also assisted the police. The police officers were unsuccessful with their batons, so they used their revolvers, according to the Times. The fighting continued to spread down Sixty-Second and Sixty-third and West End. Eventually, the police cleared the streets, although the fighting continued in surrounding environs, within stores, barber shops, saloons and tenements.22 Three white and four black civilians were injured. Their injuries ranged from razor cuts to gun shot wounds to homicide. One police officer and one Home Defense Guard were injured.

Richard Hill, a 30-year-old black man of 210 West Sixty-fourth Street, was murdered in cold blood, reported the Age.23 When police officers entered a saloon on Sixty-Third street, they ordered all the blacks to leave. Hill ran from the saloon, and several officers followed him. There were two versions of Hill’s killing. The Times alleged that Hill slashed Police officer Hey with a razor and that he was about to strike the policeman again when Policeman Meade shot him.24 Witnesses, however, alleged that Hill was no more than fifteen feet away from the police officers who were following him when he was shot by a police officer who had just exited a patrol car in front of Eugene Greaves’ grocery at 227 West Sixty-Third Street.25 The police entered Greaves establishment, where the police shot him and his niece. Greaves was arrested and charged with felonious assault, but was later discharged, as was the charge of disorderly conduct against Hamilton.

In the Fifty-Fourth Street Police Court Monday morning, David C. Outlear, attorney for the defendants revealed evidence that the police was selective in the arrests.26 As was the case in inter-racial conflict in 1905, blacks were criminalized—only their community was under surveillance. All of the violence and shooting occurred on Sixty-third Street, which was populated by blacks. Although both blacks and whites participated in the riot only blacks were arrested. The day after the riot, in order to “ensure the peace,” the police department searched blacks for weapons, again.27 Similarly, the religious community organized and solicited the auspices of District Attorney Swann. Reverend Sims, pastor of the Union Baptist Church, and other pastors, businessmen and politicians throughout black Manhattan established the Columbus Hill Committee. The committee received assurance from Police Commissioner Woods that the investigation was in progress, but the results of the investigation were not reported.28

Only fours days later, another riot erupted. In a saloon, on 137th street and Lenox Avenue, Walter Clark, a black man, protested against the price of liquor and threatened to kill the saloon’s employee with a razor. James Mohan, an off-duty police officer, had been walking outside with his daughter when he heard cries in the saloon. He ran into the saloon and told Clark to give up the weapon. He told Mohan that his gang would not allow the entire police force to take his razor, reported the Times.29 Clark charged Mohan and slashed him on the face and neck. The owner of the saloon grabbed Mohan’s daughter and they ran to the 135th Street police station. Mohan grabbed Clark and led him down the block. When the police arrived, they found over 200 hundred blacks attempting to release Clark from Mohan. The officers charged into the crowd and used their nightsticks to scatter the crowd. Clark and William Grant, the alleged gang leader, were arrested. Extra reserves were placed in Harlem because the police department feared that the killing of Richard Hill on Saturday would renew violence in Harlem and San Juan Hill.30 It is not clear if there was a direct relationship between the two events, but the fact that the police saw the connection illustrates that the police understood the black communities’ general disenchantment with the police department’s treatment. Both black communities experienced congruent conditions and responded similarly. Once they retrieved news of violence against those in their community, blacks joined in the fighting in order to defend their race.

The two altercations among blacks, whites, and the police in late May; the beating of Reverend George Sims, the leader of the Columbus Hill committee, in Harlem by officer Schwartz in June; and the St. Louis riot in early July enraged black Manhattan. Only a day after the St. Louis riot, San Juan Hill was the scene of another conflict among whites, the police and the black community. As in the May 30 mass reprisal against the police, this conflict highlighted blacks’ historical distrust for the police. On July 3 police officer Hansen ordered approximately twenty- five men of the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment, a black infantry regiment that would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment, to leave the corner of Sixty-First and Amsterdam.31 Most of the men followed Hansen’s orders. Only private Lawrence Joaquin refused to leave the corner, arguing that Hansen showed no respect for his uniform.

Hansen arrested Joaquin and led him down the street. As Hansen walked Joaquin down Amsterdam Avenue, black civilians and soldiers charged Hansen, attempting to release Joaquin.32 Hansen backed Joaquin into a hallway and defended himself with his nightstick. Meanwhile a woman informed the Sixty Eighth Street Station and three officers were sent to aid officer Hansen. Before the reserves arrived, white residents in the surrounding area joined the police officer’s side in the fight. By the time the police arrived on the scene, nearly 2,000 people, black and white, were fighting, “with knives and clubs swinging and bricks flying through the air,” according to the Times.33 The three officers were unable to control the belligerent crowd, so more reserves were called. The reserves eventually chased the rioters from the corners and subdued the fighting, which persisted down the streets.

Only black men were arrested. Along with Joaquin, Vernon Cox was charged with disorderly conduct and Isaac Brown was charged with assault. Frederick R. Moore, editor of the New York Age, and Reverend George Sims started an independent investigation. Colonel William Hayward of the Fifteenth Infantry also did his own investigation and found that Joaquin was unjustly arrested. Hayward stated, “I cannot find on shadow of justification for this arrest… I have not found any one who says that Joaquin was doing anything more than standing quietly on the street corner, or that he did more than protest verbally when ordered to move on.”34

Although officer Hansen neither respected Joaquin’s uniform nor his civil rights, the July 3rd conflict evinces more than a police officer’s unlawful behavior. The riot highlights the intense racial animosity among blacks, whites, and the police that were intensified by police brutality and unwarranted searches and arrests. In this case, as well as the brawl of May 26th in San Juan Hill, white “volunteers” joined the police to repress blacks, demonstrating a racial bond between the police force and the white civilians. The riot also sheds light on the contradictions of WWI—black patriotism and race riots. Black patriotism prevailed because the community believed race relations would improve after the war. The soldiers of the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment came from the San Juan Hill district, but the majority was from Harlem.35 The violence within and outside of Harlem must have been unsettling. Black soldiers serving in the war abroad were segregated and discriminated against; while throughout the US, whites terrorized blacks in the North and the South. Finally, and perhaps most emblematic of the contradictions during the period, black soldiers were objects of state and civil societal violence. Blacks soldiers persistently challenged white aggressors. In Houston Texas, August 1917, black soldiers retaliated against the police department after white police officers shot several black MPs the night before.36 Many blacks, therefore, felt a conflicted loyalty. As one black man stated, while watching the black troops marching in a parade in Harlem, “They’ll not take me out to make a target of me and bring me back and Jim Crow me.”37

Reoccurring violence in black Manhattan during the summer of 1917 and thereafter, as well as the race riots throughout the country, confirmed the black community’s distrust of the police. In an article entitled “New Negro,” Roscoe Dunjee, a black journalist for the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch, explained the black community’s distrust:

If you were to creep up to-night to a place where there are 10, 000 Negroes gathered, you would find no division on this point, I know that they all would say, ‘WE HAVE NO CONFIDENCE IN WHITE POLICEMEN… Let there be one hundred or one hundred thousand, they would with one accord all say, WE HAVE NO CONFIDENCE IN THE WHITE MAN’S COURT…If their cause is the cause of a black man against a white man they will say that they know that a verdict would be rendered in favor of the white man.38

Throughout the country, blacks began to arm themselves for self-defense, as had black Manhattan prior to the war. In the mist of the violence, black radicals advocated self-defense and retaliation. The day after the inter-racial violence between the police and the soldiers of the Fifteenth Regiment, Harrison held a meeting at Metropolitan Baptist Church. 39 “Certainly I would encourage the Negroes in the South, or in East St. Louis or anywhere else who do not enjoy the protection of the law, to arm for their own defense, to hide those arms, and to learn how to use them.”40 Harrison’s argument was salient because the public discourse of black leadership had condemned self-defense, although there were elements within the community that continued to arm themselves. Harrison placed self-defense within the context of elites’ rhetoric of law and order, for black Manhattan did not “enjoy the protection of the law.”

In response, Fred R. Moore chastised Harrison, replying “No man, or woman either, for that matter, is a friend to the race, who publicly advises a resort to violence to redress the wrongs and injustices to which members of the race are subjected in various sections of the country.”41 Violence was lawlessness and the espousal of such was dangerous—for blacks as well as the procurement of the franchise. Harrison rejected Moore’s “cringing,” opining that Moore’s accommodationist views were antiquated.42 Harrison’s response was directed toward Moore’s position on self-defense and the general stance of the “Old Negro.” Moore’s strategy was to convince the United States and white America to enforce the law, thereby ensuring that blacks received equal protection, similar and emblematic to DuBois’ “Close Ranks” article.43

Moore’s politics were incompatible with New Negro radicalism. “The Old Negro and his futile methods must go. After fifty years of him and his old methods the Race still suffers from lynching, disfranchisement, Jim Crowism, segregation and a hundred other ills. His abject crawling and pleading have availed the Cause nothing,” argued Cyril V. Briggs. During the war, black soldiers “felt that they were fighting for false ideals.” The discrimination they experienced during the war only corroborated what they already believed. “The new Negro has put the question: ‘What will the shot of my bolt mean?’44 New Negroes demanded and defended their rights, especially the right to defend themselves.

As race riots continued during and after the war, black radicals continued to mobilize and politicize Harlem. In 1919, after the “Red Summer,” Marcus Garvey wrote an article entitled, “Negroes Should Prepare—Black Men All Over The World Should Prepare To Protect Themselves—Negroes Should Match Fire With Hell Fire,” contextualizing the race riots, recently the Omaha Nebraska race riot, with the global race war between Europeans and people of color. Garvey argued:

No mercy, nor respect, no justice will be shown the Negro until he forces all other men to respect him. There have been many riots in the United States and England recently, and immediately following the war of democracy, there will be many more as coming from the white man. Therefore, the best thing the Negro of all countries can do is to prepare to match fire with hell fire.45

The black race, Garvey argued, needed to prepare for “war of the races” because Europeans would seek the aid of blacks against the Japanese. “The New Negro had fought the last battle for the white man, and he is now getting ready to fight for the redemption of Africa. With mob laws and lynching bees fresh in our memories, we shall turn a deaf ear to the white man when Asia administers to him his final ‘licking.’ ” Garvey, as did Powell, identified the contradiction between domestic violence against blacks in both the US and England and their dependence of blacks to fight their wars. Blacks were primarily used as pawns. Garvey argued that blacks needed to defend their race because their prize for service to the US was only more violence. Framing state violence in international terms, Garvey placed blacks’ struggles within a global race war.

As Garvey warned, violence against blacks continued in Harlem and throughout the US. In 1921, after the Tulsa race riot, in a meeting on 135th and Lenox Avenue, speaking to a large crown, Harrison and members of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) argued that the state, the police and troops, allied with white Tulsans to attack blacks. In addition, they defended and confirmed the right of black people to arm themselves and remonstrate attacks.46 On June 12, 1921, at the Palace Casino, the ABB organized a meeting, speaking to an audience of over two thousand. They stated the facts of the Tulsa Riot, affirming blacks Tulsans right to defend themselves. On June 19, W.A. Domingo organized another meeting at St. Mark’s Hall.47 Domingo admonished, “Our aim is to allow those who attack us to choose the weapons… If it be guns, we will reply with guns.”48 Throughout Harlem, as well as other black neighborhoods throughout the US, New Negroes spoke against state and civil societal violence.

Cyril Briggs founder of the ABB and editor of the Crusader wrote, “the real outrage at Tulsa was the use of the city police and the state militia against the Negroes who mobilized primarily with the one thought of protecting, against the openly announced purpose of lynching, the Negro prisoner confined in the Tulsa court-house.” Briggs, like Harrison and Garvey, identified the contradiction, “The entire power of the State, all of the forces of capitalist ‘law and order,’ were turned upon the Negro in the process of ‘putting down’ race riots that were started and most actively prosecuted by white mobs.” Law and order was illegitimate, for it was “law and order” that attacked and criminalized blacks’ right to protect themselves. The community’s experiences concretized New Negro discourse and mirrored the experiences of blacks throughout the country. During the twenties, state violence against blacks continued. Still, as in the past, blacks persistently defended themselves, engendering racial consciousness and the protection of the black community. 49

“Three thousand people can’t be wrong”

Tensions in Harlem were aroused again in the late summer of 1928. This, “near-riot,” as the Amsterdam News called it, illustrates the efforts of the community to protect their own, their distrust of the police department, and the violent relationship between the black community and the police department. On July 22, 1928, approximately three thousand blacks and one hundred and fifty police brawled in Harlem. “The worst riot in the district” occurred on 139th street and Lenox Avenue, after seven in the evening. The community saw a black man being attacked by four police officers, so the community retaliated. As reserves from different precincts continued to arrive, Harlemites threw bricks, dishes, and chairs from their windows. The riot persisted for an hour, until the presence of the emergency squad with machine guns and a fire apparatus finally subdued the crowd.

Harlem believed that the police had brutalized another of their denizens. As the editor of the Amsterdam News wrote, “Three thousand people can’t be wrong.” White and black police officers served the community with “brutality not brains.” The court case endured for seven months. Clarence Donald, who was at the center of the riot, was convicted for felonious assault on an officer. Several witnesses, testifying in Donald’s behalf, would also serve time.

The conflict began in Mr. Henry and Zerlena Chavis’, a black couple, apartment at 559 Lenox Avenue. Mrs. Chavis said that at seven in the evening, three drunken men knocked on her apartment door asking for Robert. Mrs. Chavis testified that she closed her door and awoke her husband, who went to the kitchen door and let the three men into the apartment50 She left the apartment and ascended the stairs, allegedly followed by Clarence Donald. Donald choked her and she screamed, testified Mrs. Chavis. Ruth Jackson, a tenant on the 5th floor, heard the scream and brought Mrs. Chavis into the apartment. Jackson also identified Donald as the aggressor. Mrs. Chavis then screamed out the window, yelling, “Catch that man.”

The actual riot began in the street with the beating of Clarence Donald. There were several versions of the altercation; yet all stated that Clarence Donald battled with several police officers. The New York Times and the New York Amsterdam News named Officer James Kubeil as the first officer to arrive. After this, the stories diverge. The Times’ and the police officers testimonies’ both stated that Donald initiated the conflict and that the black community defended him. Donald kicked Officer Kubeil in the privates when the officer tried to grab him and “several negroes standing near by joined in the affray,” according to the Times.51 The Amsterdam, however, states that Donald was attacked first and that the riot began as a result of Officer Destella striking a black woman when she told him that he should be ashamed for beating a defenseless man.52

While in custody the police assaulted Donald, according to the Amsterdam. “When Donald was taken to the police station he was walking, but they brought him out on a stretcher.”53 Dermot Bailey, who was also arrested at the riot on a charge of disorderly conduct and later released, told a reporter that he saw four plain clothed men and one uniformed police officer beat Donald behind closed doors at the West 135th street police station.54 Donald claimed that Mrs. Chavis would not have identified him without the detective pointing him out to her in court. Mrs. Chavis, however, claimed that she first identified him as he lay in blood in the West 135th street police station.

Officer Kubeil testified that he grabbed the first man he saw running, but that someone yelled, “That is not the man.” Kubeil also admitted to hitting Donald, but only because he initiated the conflict when he struck Officer Destella. Officer Kubeil testified:

As I went to grab him at about 139th Street, he became abusive. I started to bring him back to find out what the trouble was. …Both of us grappled him together, and he put up a fight, and he made a pass at Destella and we had a mix-up. He fell down, in the tussle, taking Destella to the ground with him, and he had Destella by the coat, at the throat. I didn’t know what was going on. So I went over to help Destella. As I did, he kicked me in my private. 55
A closer examination of the officers’ testimonies cast further suspicion on who initiated the conflict. Kubeil’s statement suggests that Donald was facing Destella. Yet, officer Destella states that he did not see Donald kick Kubeil. “He had me pulled down like this (indicating) alongside of him, and he was facing Kubeil,” testified Destella.56 It is unlikely that Destella could not see Donald kick Kubeil if Donald was lying beside Destella, facing Kubeil. It is also incredible that Donald could kick Kubeil while strangling Destella.

Several witnesses claim that Donald was not in the Chavis’ apartment during the altercation, all placed him on the street, drunk and staggering. Gertrude Simmons, a tenant of 65 West 139th Street, stated that police officers, Kubeil and Destella, clubbed Donald without saying a word. Simmons also alleged that Officer Destella sought to kick Donald, but missed and Kubeil caught the kick in the groin.57 Other eyewitnesses confirmed Simmons’ story; two were intimidated and arrested in court. Just before Pedro Suner, 21years old, a native of Panama, was about to testified on the stand, Patrolman Young arrested him for assault. Attorney Smith protested that Suner was framed, arguing that it was perpetrated in order to “gag” Suner’s testimony on the behalf of Donald. Suner testified on the stand that Donald was drunk, walking down the street singing and dancing the Charleston. Suner claimed that he watched Donald for five or ten minutes and that as Donald neared 139th street, he heard the woman scream. 58

Patrolman Young alleged that during the riot, Suner took a strangle hold upon Young with his left arm and reached for Young’s revolver with his right. Samuel W. McFadden, a black officer who was also injured during the riot, corroborated Young’s testimony. Attorney Smith challenged Young, who weighed 210 pounds, while Suner weighed about 130 pounds. Smith asked, “And you want us to believe that you could not protect yourself against this young man, the defendant?” Young stated that he had been grappling with another prisoner. Smith asked him what happened to the prisoner and Young stated, “He got away.” Smith continued to question Young, asking him if he could identify the man? If the man was in the courtroom? Young exclaimed, “Well, I could go down the aisle and pick him out.” Young stood up and glanced over the courtroom. Simultaneously, Detective Farrington of the West 135th street station whispered something in Assistant District Attorney Martin’s ear and Martin, subsequently, asked Young if it was not a fact that he could not arrest the prisoner because he was already in custody, stating that Clarence Donald was the prisoner. Young replied that Donald was the other person he fought with as Suner attempted to grab the officer’s gun.59 St. William Grant, another eyewitness for Donald, testified that he overheard the officers say they were going to frame the arrest of Suner. Nevertheless, Suner was found guilty and sentenced to the penitentiary for an indefinite term.60

In the Heights Court on August 14, St. William Grant testified that Destella was responsible for kicking Kubeil and that patrolman Richardson beat Donald with a club while Destella and Kubeil held him.61 He also corroborated the testimonies of Cecil Lee and H. E. Armstrong, who stated that Donald “was not in the Chavis apartment before the disturbance.”62 The moment after Grant left the stand, he was arrested in court for robbery. Herman Ellis, a white taxi cab driver, who was also in court testifying against Donald, recognized Grant and informed officer Herman Ellis that Grant had robbed him in the hallway of 204 West 119th Street. Counselor Smith requested protection from the Magistrate for Grant, as well as to illustrate that Grant was unblemished prior to his imprisonment. While in custody, Grant was beaten and burned. The arresting officer, Detective Webber accused Grant of attacking him during the fingerprinting process. The police reported that he was turning over desks and breaking windows. Detective Webber stated:

He wanted to make a bad job. So I asked him to keep his hand quiet, and I torn up two or three different forms that he had smeared with his hands. So the next minute he smears it again. He started the holler ‘murder.’ So he sat on the floor and wouldn’t get up. I pulled him up, and he grabs me and he torn my shirt and underwear, and he got his hand around my tie, and other detectives in the house there—he is a pretty husky fellow—they sat him up, and he wouldn’t stand up. He was yelling ‘Murder,’ throwing chairs, and he tore all his clothes from him, making it appear that he was beaten by the police and refused to walk.63
Webber also alleged that Grant refused to enter his cell, banged his head against the walls, and took all of clothes off in order to validate Attorney Smith’s characterization of the police department. During his first arraignment, Grant was “hardly recognizable” and in the line up he could barely stand. 64 His bail was set at $5,000, but reduced to $2,500. After spending ten days in lockup, District Attorney Martin attempted to raise Grant’s bail to $10,000, stating that “certain colored people upon whose word he could rely” had told him that Grant and Donald belonged to “a vicious organization.” District Attorney Martin’s machinations failed. Grant’s bail was set at $5,000. Grant told the Amsterdam News that he was abused. He was beaten at the Wadsworth Avenue police station and then he was taken in the taxi of Herman Ellis to the 123rd street station, where he was burned with cigar butts on his hands and legs and advised to testify that he stole Ellis’ watch and money. Grant also stated that he was told that the charges would be dropped if he testified against Donald. Donald refused, replying, “I will not lie on anybody.”65

During Grant’s second arraignment, Grant pled not guilty. Dermot Bailey’s and Samuel Grant’s, St. William’s brother, testimonies provided the defendant with an alibi, each placed Grant at home, between 2 a.m. and 6:30a.m., during the time Ellis claimed that he was robbed, approximately 2:45 a.m.66 Once it was revealed that Grant had attended each of Donald’s court hearings and that he had seen Ellis on the morning of August 14, hours before he was arrested in the afternoon, the Magistrate Hyman Bushel questioned whether it was “probable that he (Grant) would return to court when he knew his own liberty was in danger?”67 It seemed clear that Grant was framed. In a letter written from Tombs Prison to Judge Panger, Grant expressed emphatically, “They frame me that I Rob a white taximan the Saturday before the Riot in Harlem. Hon Panger I was in Court three times before I was arrested charge for robbing him. He was also there three times, on the 4th time he cause my arrest.”68 In the letter, Grant also stated that black officers abused blacks citizens and assisted District Attorney Martin in persuading Magistrate Bushel to augment Grant’s bail. Unlike Suner and Donald, Grant was acquitted.

The “Near-riot,” epitomized the antagonistic relationship between the black community and the police department. Although it was not clear who initiated the conflict, Clarence Donald was beaten and Harlem responded, immediately and emphatically. As a community they retaliated, rejecting the police’s racist behavior in the streets and the police station. The alleged beating of Donald and Grant in custody and the arresting of Suner and Grant placed suspicion on the practices of the NYPD, whose behavior legitimized Harlem’s distrust.


World War I was a transitional and transformative period for the black World in general and Harlem in particular, for along with the change in the racial and cultural fabric of the community came internal and external forces that politicized the developing black community. The prevalence of police brutality, concomitant with the emergence of New Negro politics raised Harlem’s consciousness as objects of state repression, forging a politics that protected denizens within the community.

While interracial violence among civilians were often caused by socio-economic and spatial related conflicts that were mutually reinforced in the neighborhood as well as the workplace, violent interactions between blacks and police were based on unwarranted arrests and illegal searches and seizures—issues of personal dignity and state-sanctioned violence.69 The semipublic and personalized nature of state violence and surveillance has obfuscated the degree to which blacks constantly lived under the threat of violence, leading historians as well as contemporaries, such as James Weldon Johnson, to mischaracterize race relations and violence in Harlem because of the absence of race riots.

The 1928 “near riot” displayed, again, the community’s anger and distrust of the police department. Black weeklies’ coverage of the court case confirmed the community’s convictions and demonstrated the criminality of the state: eyewitnesses were arrested, prisoners were beat, and police officers’ testimonies were contradictory. These conditions and conflicts would continue throughout the 1930s and 1940s, intensified by the Great Depression and World War II—contributing to and culminating in the 1935 and 1943 race riots.70

1 James Weldon Johnson, “The Making of Harlem” in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6 No. 6 (New York: Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, March 1925), 639.

2James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1940), 157.

3 Harlem’s black community developed as other black neighbors in Manhattan devolved. Black Manhattan, therefore, covers the general black population in Manhattan. In fact, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, black southern and Caribbean migrants initially resided in the Tenderloin and San Juan Hill districts, where they experienced state and civil societal violence. As these migrants and native New Yorkers moved uptown to Harlem, they, of course, carried their experiences of violence with them.

4 The Citizens’ Protective League, Story of the Riot (New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1969), 1.

5 Ibid., 2.

6 Ibid.,4.

7 Quote in Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of the Ghetto, Negro New York, 1890-1930 (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 1996), 52.

8 Dominic Capeci, Jr., The Harlem Riot of 1943 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977; Cheryl Greenberg, “The Politics of Disorder: Reexamining Harlem’s riots of 1935 and 1943” in Journal of Urban History, Vol. 18 No 4, August 1992; Elliot Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964); Sandburg, Carl,The Chicago Race Riot (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1969); Shogan, Robert and Craig, Tom, The Detroit Race Riot: A Study in Violence (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1964); Mayor LaGuardia’s Commission of the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935, The Complete Report of Mayor La Guardia’s Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935, Mass Violence in America, eds. Robert M. Fogelson and Richard E. Rubenstein (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1969); and Tuttle, William M. Jr., Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (New York: Atheneum, 1970).  

9 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 38.

10 Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class(New York: The Free Press, 1996), 85

11 Joe W. Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-45(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 118.

12 Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), 85.

13 Infrapolitics is understood as social and cultural practices that are associated with oppressed classes geared towards covertly changing the power relations through “hidden transcripts,” a dissident political culture, and daily acts of resistance and survival. Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels, 8-9. In Harlem, and throughout black Manhattan, both state repression and black resistance were “infra” in the sense that they were not documented in the “official” or “public” transcript, which criminalized black self-defense.

14 Twenty-Four Negro Families in Harlem (New York: The New York Urban League, May 1927), 3.

15 Fourteenth Census of The United States: 1920. Vol. II. General Report and Analytical Tables, Chapter I. Table 16., 55.

16Fifteenth Census of The United States: 1930. Population, Vol.II General Report Statistics by Subjects, Chapter II, Table 24., 76.

17 Quote in Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982), 105.

18 Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem, 101.

19 John C. Walter, The Harlem Fox: J. Raymond Jones and Tammany, 1920-1970 (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), 36.

20 Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America (New York and London: Verso, 1998), 123; Barbara Foley, Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

21 NYT, May 27, 1917, 12.

22 NYT, May, 27, 1917, 12

23 NYA, May 31, 1917, 1.

24 NYT, May 27, 1917, 1.

25 NYA, May 31, 1917, 1.

26 NYA, May 31, 1917, 1.

27 NYT, May 28, 1917, 17.

28 NYA, June 7, 1917, 1 and NYT, June 21, 1917, 24.

29 NYT, May 31, 1917, 18.

30 NYT, May 31, 1917, 18.

31 NYT, July 4, 1917, 9.

32 NYT, July 4, 1917, 9.

33 NYT, July 4, 1917, 9.

34 NYT, July 6, 1917, 9.

35Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem, 101-102.

36 Mary Frances Berry, Black Resistance White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America (New York: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1994), 109-110. In Chicago, according to black communist Harry Haywood, black soldiers organized and used their military training to ambush belligerent whites. Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Illinois: Liberator Press, 1978), 82.

37 NYA, March 29, 1917.

38 Rosecoe Dunjee, “The New Negro,” Oklahoma City Blacks Dispatch, October 10, 1919 in Voices of a Black Nation: Political Journalism in the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Theodore G. Vincent (New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc, 1973), 65.

39Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and The Harlem Community, 1900-1930(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 101.

40 NYT, July 5, 1917, 9. W. A. Domingo, editor of the Emancipator and a member of the African Blood Brotherhood advanced similar sentiments in 1921in response to white terror in Tulsa, Oklahoma. NYT, June 20, 1921, 8.

41 NYA, July 12, 1917.

42 Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 102.

43 W. E. B. DuBois, “Close Ranks” in Crisis, July 1918.

44 William N. Colson “The New Negro Patriotism” in the Messenger (August, 1919).

45 Marcus Garvey, “Negroes Should Prepare—Black Men All Over The World Should Prepare To Protect Themselves—Negroes Should Match Fire With Hell Fire,” in Negro World, October 11, 1919.

46Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, 132 and Article published in the Baltimore Afro-Americans, June 10, 1921, entitled “A Call To Arms” in Voices of A Black Nation: Political Journalism in the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Theodore G. Vincent(New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc., 1973), 138

47The Crusader, Ed. Cyril V. Briggs, Vol. IV. No. 5, July 1921 in The Crusader: Facsimile of the Periodical . ed. Robert Hill(New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1987) ,1181.

48NYT, June 20, 1921, 8:3.

49 NYT, April 15, 1918, 22; NYT, March 26, 1919, 11; NYT, September 19, 1926, 29; NYAN, September 22, 1926,3; and NYAN 29, 1926

50 New York Amsterdam News, August 8, 1928.

51 New York Times, July 23, 1928, 1.

52 New York Amsterdam News, August 1, 1928.

53 NYAN, August 8, 1928.

54 NYAN, August 1, 1928.

55 People against Clarence Donald (Cal. #52, 964; Ind. #174, 626) Statements of :Officers James Kubeil, Samuel McFadden, Young, Herman Destella, and Mrs. Chavis, November 21, 1928. New York City Indictment No. 174626,Cal No. 52964, September 27, 1928. Municipal Archives of the City of New York.

56 Ibid. , 2.

57 NYAN, August 1, 1928.

58 NYAN, August 8, 1928.

59 NYAN, August 8, 1928.

60 NYAN, November 21, 1928.

61 NYAN, August 22, 1928.

62 NYAN, August 15, 1928.

63 People Against St. William Grant, Statement of George Webber, 16th Squad. Made to Assistant District Attorney Morris H. Panger. October 31, 1928, 3. New York City Indictment No. 174466, Calendar No. 52962, September 27, 1928. Municipal Archives of the City of New York.

64 Ibid., and NYAN, August 22, 1928.

65 NYAN, August 29, 1928, 3.

66 NYAN, August 29, 1928, 2.

67 NYAN, August 29, 1928, 3.

68 Letter to Honorable Panger from St. William Grant. November 11, 1928, New York City Indictment No. 174626, Calendar No. 52964. Municipal Archives of the City of New York.

69 Kelley, 79.

70 Capeci, Jr., The Harlem Riot of 1943 and Cheryl Greenberg, “The Politics of Disorder.”

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