1943 Harlem Riots – The Feeling of Freedom 1

My father was seventeen and ready to leave home. A friend was urging him to run away from parents who were loving but stern. They believed in severe corporal punishment as well as the recitation of long passages of the bible for any misdoings. It was a hot summer weekend and my father’s parents were out of town. As my father was thinking about his own personal freedom he heard loud noises outside his fourth floor apartment window. It was the beginning of a two day uprising in Harlem.

As I transcribe these tapes one of the things that consistently amazes me is the accuracy of my father’s internal chronology. He told me he thought it was August 3, 1943 when they “jumped off.” When I researched the facts I discovered that despite over fifty years of distance from the event he was almost correct. The riot occurred on the first and second of August in 1943.

1943 riot streetMy father described the riot as occurring at a crossroads between race and morality, the solder and the (possible) prostitute, and the policeman. News sources vary in the story details but what is clear is that a Robert Bandy, a Negro soldier, came to the aid of a young Negro woman who was being accosted by a police officer in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel. Bandy was trying to stop what he perceived of as unreasonable harassment. As Langston Hughes wrote:

“If Margie Polite
Had of been white
She might not’ve cussed
Out the cop that night…
She started the riots!
Harlemites say
August 1st is

The policeman ended up shooting the soldier. He was taken by ambulance to the local hospital where over three thousand people stood watch outside awaiting the outcome. My father’s view of the riot was, however, very personal:

“The rumor was that the brother had died. Harlem went up!   There was radio, but this wasn’t big communication times. The rumor went up by jungle telephone.

 Now I lived at 117th street between 5th and Lennox. My parents were out that weekend. I was home and I heard all this noise and broken glass. I looked out the window and I could see all these people. My parents weren’t home so I went down to the corner.

On our side of the block there was a Woolworths and next to that place there was a dude who made hats, but he wasn’t making enough money making hats so he put in a line of liquor. I hit the corner just when these brothers hit that store. Boom! They went in there and came out with liquor and hats.

 1943 Harlem riotPeople are looting. I look across the street and three doors down from the corner is the A&P. This is a Sunday night and I am standing in front of the A&P wondering where to go next when somebody threw a rock through the window. At that moment these two sanctified sisters walked down the street and one sister said to the other sister, “Look what the Lord done sent.” That’s a direct quote. “Sister look what the Lord done sent,” and they headed straight in after beckoning me.

Now, most young kids at that point were shopping bag kids. That is we sold shopping bags and we made a little money bringing packages home. Sisters would go shopping and we’d take the groceries and they would tip us and so forth.

 Now all hell is breaking loose and these sisters stood there and calmly shopped.

“Sister have you tried this salmon?”

“Oh no, I really have always wanted too.”

And they were calm, cool and serene and there wasn’t too much looting and stuff. It was just groceries. People would come in, snatch a can of beans or something and run. Not these sisters. They shopped and I carried their groceries home for them, was paid and went home.

There was something about just the free spiritedness of the riot. It really got to me.

 After 6,600 cops, 8,000 state guardsmen, and 1500 (mostly Negro) civilians armed with nightsticks and armbands brought pressure on the neighborhood the rioting dwindled and stopped.

1943 riot and policeThe rage which had been detonated by the belief that there had been another police murder was a reaction to the oppressive poverty, relentless police harassment, ill treatment of Negro soldiers, lack of employment opportunities and, of course, racism. In the end six Harlemites were killed, five through police violence, and another 400 hundred were wounded. Over 1200 were arrested.

As for the free spiritedness my father spoke of, two weeks later he did indeed leave home.

Do you have your own memory of a local uprising.you can share? I was in the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco when  Hunters Point exploded in 1967 after a police officer  killed a black teenager.  And I lived in the Fillmore after the Rodney King verdict when my children and many of their friends and schoolmates were storming out of schools, some of them going downtown breaking windows and expressing their rage at the unjust verdict. Please write a comment about your thoughts on rioting in general or a specific rebellion or uprising.


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