Harlem: Dark Weather-Vane
Curtain-raiser to the reformation was the Harlem riot of March 19 and 20, 1935; variously diagnosed as a depression spasm, a Ghetto mutiny, a radical plot and dress rehearsal of proletarian revolution. Whichever it was, like a revealing flash of lightning it etched on the public mind another Harlem than the bright surface Harlem of the night clubs, cabaret tours and arty magazines, a Harlem that the social worker knew all along but had not been able to dramatizea Harlem, too, that the radical press and street-corner orator had been pointing out but in all too incredible exaggerations and none too convincing shouts.
In the perspective of time, especially if the situation is handled constructively, we shall be grateful for that lightning-flash which brought the first vivid realization of the actual predicament of the mass life in Harlem and for the echoing after-peals of thunder that have since broken our placid silence and Pollyanna complacency about it. For no cultural advance is safe without some sound economic underpinning, the foundation of a decent and reasonably secure average standard of living; and no emerging éliteartistic, professional or mercantilecan suspend itself in thin air over the abyss of a mass of unemployed stranded in an over-expensive, disease- and crime-ridden slum. It is easier to dally over black Bohemia or revel in the hardy survivals of Negro art and culture than to contemplate this dark Harlem of semi-starvation, mass exploitation and seething unrest. But turn we must. For there is no cure or saving magic in poetry and art, an emerging generation of talent, or in international prestige and interracial recognition, for unemployment or precarious marginal employment, for high rents, high mortality rates, civic neglect, capitalistic exploitation on the one hand and radical exploitation on the other. Yet for some years now Harlem has been subject to all this deep undertow as against the surface advance of the few bright years of prosperity. Today instead of applause and publicity, Harlem needs constructive social care, fundamental community development and planning, and above all statesman-like civic handling.
IMMEDIATELY after the March riot, Mayor La Guardia appointed a representative bi-racial Commission of Investigation, headed by an esteemed Negro citizen, Dr. Charles H. Roberts. After 21 public and 4 closed hearings conducted with strategic liberality by Arthur Garfield Hays, and nearly a year's investigation by subcommissions on Health and Hospitalization, Housing, Crime and Delinquency and Police, Schools, the Social Services and Relief Agencies, a general report has been assembled under the direction of E. Franklin Frazier, professor of sociology at Howard University, which was filed with the Mayor March 31, 1936, just a few days after the first anniversary of the riots. A preliminary section on the causes of the riot has been published, and several other sections have found their way to publication, some regrettably in garbled form. The public awaits the full and official publication of what is, without doubt, an important document on the present state of Harlem. When published, the findings will shock the general public and all but the few social experts already familiar with the grave economic need and social adjustment in Harlem and the inadequacies of short-sighted provisions in basic civic facilities of schools, hospitals, health centers, housing control and the like, a legacy of neglect from the venal, happy-go-lucky days of Tammany-controlled city government. Now with a socially-minded city and national government the prospects of Negro Harlemand for that matter all handicapped sectionsare infinitely brighter.
But there is evidence that the present city administration is losing no time in acting to improve the Harlem situation; partly no doubt upon the specific findings and recommendations of the recent investigation, but largely from previous plans, seriously delayed by lack of capital funds or federal subsidies such as are now financing some of the major items of the reform program. Within recent months, in some cases weeks, Harlem's urgent community needs have been recognized in the reconditioning of its sorely inadequate and formerly overcrowded municipal hospital, the completion and equipment of a long delayed woman's hospital pavilion approximately doubling the bed capacity of the Harlem Hospital, the remodeling of a temporary out-patient department, and the recommendation by the Commissioner of Hospitals of a new out-patient building and of plans for a new independent hospital plant. Similarly, in the school system's 1937 budget two new school plants for Harlem have been incorporated. On June 20, the Mayor and the Secretary of the Interior spoke at the dedication of the foundations of the new Harlem River housing project, which will afford model housing for 574 low income families with also a nursery school, community playground, model recreation and health clinic facilitiesa $4,700,000 PWA project. On June 24, the Mayor drove the last foundation piling for another PWA project, the. $240,000 district health clinic for the badly congested Central Harlem section, where the incidence of tuberculosis, social disease and infant mortality is alarmingly high, and announced the appointment of an experienced Negro physician as head officer It has been announced that a stipulation had been incorporated in the contract specifications for these new public works that Negro skilled labor was to have its fair share of consideration.
All this indicates a new and praiseworthy civic regard for Harlem welfare, contrasting sharply with previous long-standing neglect. The Commission in complaining of present conditions is careful to make plain that the present city administration has inherited most of them and that, therefore, they are not to be laid at its door. Yet they are on its doorstep, waiting immediate attention and all possible relief. The conditions are a reproach not only to previous politically minded municipal administrations but also to the apathy and lack of public-mindedness on the part of Harlem's Negro politicians and many professional leaders who either did not know or care about the condition of the masses.
Recent improvements will make some sections of the Commission's report contrary to present fact when it appears, but few will care to cavil about that. Yet, both for the record and for the sake of comparison, the situation as the Commission found it should be known. Harlem may not be disposed to look gift horses in the mouth, though a few professional agitators may. Clearly the present administration is now aware of Harlem's objective needs and is taking steps to meet some of them. Mayor La Guardia, speaking at the housing ceremony, said: "We cannot be expected to correct in a day the mistakes and omissions of the past fifty years. But we are going places and carrying out a definite program. While the critics have been throwing stones, I have been laying bricks." But admittedly the situation is still inadequately provided for even when present plans and immediate prospects are carried out; compounding the actual need is a swelling sense of grievance over past civic neglect and proscription. A long-range plan of civic improvements in low-cost housing, and slum clearance, in further hospital and health clinic facilities, recreation, library and adult education centers, auxiliary school agencies is imperatively necessary. And in certain city departments a clearer policy of fair play is needed, not so much with regard to the inclusion of Negroes in municipal poststhough that too is importantas in their consideration for executive and advisory appointments where they can constructively influence municipal policies and remedial measures for the Harlem constituency. One of the fatal gaps between good intentions and good performance is in this matter of local administrators, where often an executive policy officially promulgated gets short circuited into discrimination at the point of practical application. Negroes are often accused of race chauvinism in their almost fanatical insistence upon race representatives on executive boards and in councils of policy, but the principle of this vital safeguard is of manifest importance. Especially in situations of accumulated wrong and distrust, mere practical expediency requires public assurance and reassurance.
THE riot itself might never have occurred had such imponderables been taken into consideration. Its immediate causes were trivial,the theft of a ten-cent pocket-knife by a Negro lad of sixteen in Kresge's department store on 125 Street. It was rumored that the boy had been beaten in the basement by store detectives and was gravely injured or dead; by tragic coincidence an ambulance called to treat one of the Kresge employee, whose hand the boy had bitten, seemed to confirm the rumor and a hearse left temporarily outside its garage in an alley at rear of the store to corroborate this. As a matter of fact the boy had given back the stolen knife and had been released through the basement door. But it must be remembered that this store, though the bulk of its trade was with Negroes, has always discriminated against Negroes in employment. Shortly before the riot it had been the objective of a picketing campaign for the employment of Negro store clerks, had grudgingly made the concession of a few such jobs and then transferred the so-called "clerks" to service at the lunch counter. While the original culprit slept peacefully at home, a community of 200,000 was suddenly in the throes of serious riots through the night, with actual loss of life, many injuries to police and citizens, destruction of property, and a serious aftermath of public grievance and anger. The careful report of the Commission on this occurrence correctly places the blame far beyond the immediate precipitating incidents. It was not the unfortunate rumors, but the state of mind on which they fell; not the inflammatory leaflets issued several hours after the rioting had begun by the Young Liberators, a radical Negro defense organization, or the other broadside distributed a little later by the Young Communist League, but the sense of grievance and injustice that they could depend on touching to the quick by any recital of fresh wrong and injustice.
The report finds that the outbreak was spontaneous and unpremeditated; that it was not a race riot in the sense of physical conflict between white and colored groups; that it was not instigated by Communists, though they sought to profit by it and circulated a false and misleading leaflet after the riots were well underway; that the work of the police was by no means beyond criticism; and that this sudden breach of the public order was the result of a highly emotional situation among the colored people of Harlem, due in part to the nervous strain of years of unemployment and insecurity. ". . . Its distinguishing feature was an attack I upon property rather than persons, and resentment I against whites who, while exploiting Negroes, denied them an opportunity to work." The report warns of possible future recurrences, offering as the only safe. remedy the definite betterment of economic and civic conditions which, until improved, make Harlem a "fertile field for radical and other propaganda."
It is futile, [the report continues] to condemn the propagandists or to denounce them for fishing in troubled waters. The only answer is to eliminate the evils upon which they base their arguments. The blame belongs to a society that tolerates inadequate and often wretched housing, inadequate and inefficient schools and other public facilities, unemployment, unduly high rents, the lack of recreation grounds, discrimination in industry and the public utilities in the employment of colored people, brutality and lack of courtesy by police. As long as these conditions remain, the public order can not and will not be safe.
Despite this clear diagnosis, there are those even in official circles who insist upon a more direct connection between Harlem's restless temper and radical propaganda. To do so seriously misconstrues the situation by inverting the real order of cause and effect. Discrimination and injustice are the causes, not radicalism. But to neglect the symptoms, to ignore the grievances will be to spread radicalism. Violence will be an inevitable result. Eleven years ago, in the Harlem issue of Survey Graphic, the writer said:
Fundamentally, for the present, the Negro is radical only on race matters, in other words, a forced radical, a social protestant rather than a genuine radical. Yet under further pressure and injustice iconoclastic thought and motives will inevitably increase. Harlem's quixotic radicalisms call for their ounce of democracy today lest tomorrow they be beyond cure.That statement needs underscoring today, when aspects of discrimination, chronic through the years, become acute under the extra pressure of the depression. At such a time specialperhaps even heroicremedy becomes necessary where preventive long term treatment should and could have been the scientific course. It follows that at this stage both the basic disease and its many complications as well must be treated. Obviously both long and short term measures are indicated, from the temporary palliative that allays inflamed public opinion to the long range community planning which requires years for development and application. The Commission report spreads its recommendations over just such a wide range. It is particularly wise and sound, even at the risk of appearing doctrinaire, in pointing to the Negro's economic exploitation through the employment policy of l the whole community as the basic economic disease, anal to segregation as inducing the radical complications. Unlike many such reports this one does not overlook fundamentals, and in that respect renders a service of truly scientific and permanent value.
IT follows then that Harlem's most acute problem is l employment. Not mere job occupancy, but rather a lifting of its economic earning power through less discriminatory job distribution. A careful analysis of job categories and employment trends makes this clear and is the basis for the rather startling suggestion that the municipality grapple with the traditionally non-governmental problem of the right to work according to ability. Knowing of course that the city cannot directly control the private labor market, the report nevertheless suggests, as a long term policy, measures of indirect control. It suggests that the city enact an ordinance that no municipal contracts be given to firms or corporations that discriminate, racially or otherwise, against workers, and that in its contracts with the public utilities it make provisions and reservations which will prevent flagrant labor discrimination. It further suggests that the city itself as an employer set a good example, not merely by the number of Negroes employed but by widening the range of jobs filled by Negroes. This is a particularly pointed suggestion in view of the fact that the relatively small quota of Negroes in the New York city service, 2.2 percent in 1920 had fallen to 1.4 percent in 1930, the latest figure available. The PWA housing project for Harlem sets the proper but daring precedent of specifying that the employment of less than one third skilled Negro labor will constitute prima facie evidence of discrimination, and furnish grounds for disciplinary action against the contractor. Revolutionary as all this may seem, it goes to the economic roots of the race issue, and boldly carries the principle of the Fourteenth Amendment into the economic field. Typical is the report of the New York Edison Company with 65 Negroes in its employ out of 10,000 and the Fifth Avenue Coach Co. with 213 Negroes l out of a total of 16,000 employee. It is such an industrial policy that brings, in the words of the report, "a certain retribution upon a community that discriminates against the Negro worker through the money it must spend upon him in the form of relief."
THE common sense and logic of such a position become obvious when a community has to pay the indirect costs of labor discrimination in relief to the victims of insecure and marginal employment. Definite proof of this economic inequality is seen in the disproportionate number of Negroes on New York City relief rolls. Ten percent of the Negro population is on relief, over double its relative population of 4 percent. It has been further evidenced in the difficulties encountered by Negro workers with skilled vocational training and experience in securing work relief assignments except as unskilled laborers. Negroes did not receive their proportionate share of work relief jobs even in sections predominantly Negro, and in sections predominantly white Negro home relief clients were not given their proportional share of referral assignments to work relief jobs. Many skilled Negro workers had either to accept places in the unskilled ranks or go back to the home relief rolls as "unemployables." Of the employables in New York City on relief the year preceding the riot, 14 percent or 58,950 were Negroes.
Most of the complaints of discrimination in the relief services have occurred in the work relief sections, where finally an advisory committee on Negro problems was appointed, and in the matter of personnel policies of the Emergency Relief Bureau itself. In home relief, the investigation found substantial fairness and little or no justifiable complaint. Negroes have been employed in the relief services at a ratio almost double their percentage in the city's population, incidentally affording indirect evidence of the disproportionate amount of unemployment among Negroes with relatively high grade qualifications. There was some complaint, according to the report, about their slow admission to higher administration grades, especially the strategic positions of occupational clerks, a type of position vital for initiating any broader policy of labor classification for Negro eligibles. Recently, Mayor La Guardia announced the appointment of Dr. John H. Johnson, rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church, as the sixth member of the Emergency Relief Bureau.
HOUSING is the most serious special community problem of Harlem. The Negro's labor short dollar is further clipped by the exorbitant rentals characteristic of the segregated areas where most Negroes must reside. Whereas rents should approximate 20 percent of family income, and generally tend to do so, in Harlem they average nearly double or 40 percent. Model housing does not begin to touch the real mass need either as slum clearance or low cost housing until it brings the average rental down to $5 to $7 per room per month. The Dunbar Apartments, erected some years back with Rockefeller subsidy, could not meet this need although at the time it gave middle-class Harlem a real lift in the direction of decent housing and neighborhood conditions. The new Harlem River Houses, to be erected with federal subsidy, will be the first model housing to reach the class that needs it most. The New York Housing Authority deserves great credit for initiation and for the principle of local Negro advice and promised Negro management which it has adopted. Harlem's appreciative response was clearly evident at the recent cornerstone-laying when Secretary Ickes, Mayor La Guardia and Commissioner Langdon Post of the Tenement House Department endorsed the principle of bringing modern housing to the congested sections of Harlem. Secretary Ickes said: "The record of American housing is proof positive of one thing. Private initiative cannot, unaided, properly house our low income families. It is simply not in the cards. It can mulct unenviable profits by housing our people badly; it cannot make money by housing them well." That holds a fortiori for the Negro. But when the federally aided scheme has demonstrated its social and humane objectives, cut the cost of crime and juvenile delinquency, exerted its remedial influence on other negative social forces, including racial discontent, the subsidizing of still larger scale projects by the state and municipality will be wisely charged off to their proper balances in the saner bookkeeping of an intelligently social-minded community. The Commission's subcommission on housing under Morris L. Ernst was very active in its advocacy of progressive housing legislation before the State Legislature, and considerable progress in condemning old-law tenements and in slum clearance projects is contemplated under the progressive state legislation for which the Harlem investigation housing commission was directly responsible.
HEALTH is the second great problem and disease is the second grim link in the Ghetto chain which fetters Harlem life. Central Harlem's rate of infant mortality, tuberculosis, and venereal disease is expectedly high and in direct proportion to areas of congestion and poverty. Harlem's hospital and health facilities were handicapped over a period of years, directly by antiquated equipment, indirectly by political and racial feuds. Regrettable differences often brought the two professional organizations of Negro physicians in Harlem into conflict. Although these differences were often over divergent views as to the gains and losses of segregation, or of this or that tactic in securing the admission of Negroes to staff and internes' positions in the municipal hospitals, they were anything but conducive to the morale of Harlem Hospital or to any clear policy of the hospital authorities. It took years of agitation to get any Negroes on the staff and the governing medical board, and Negro internee were admitted to Harlem Hospital only within the last ten years. Until recently there was only one Negro on the Harlem Hospital Board, and one Negro physician of full staff rank. The situation both as to hospital facilities and staff personnel has shown material improvement recently under what promises to be a new and liberalized policy instituted by the present Commissioner of Hospitals, Dr. Goldwater. But that change was too recent to spare the Commissioner or his immediate subordinate in charge of the Harlem Hospital from adverse criticism by the Commission. Recent improvements offset some of the shocking and inadequate conditions that had existed for years.
On January 2 the opening of the new women's wing to Harlem Hospital increased its capacity from 325 to 665 beds. This pavilion, almost completed four years ago, had stood unfinished chiefly because of legal complications growing out of the failure of contractors. This relief from overcrowding, no doubt the basis for the most serious complaints as to previous maladministration, clears the way for remodeling and modernizing the older parts of the hospital, which is now proceeding under WPA grants. A new nurses' home has recently opened; plans for a new $1,500,000 outpatient department have been drawn, and an additional entirely new hospital has been recommended as an urgent item in the impending capital outlay for city hospitals. In the meantime, the Department of Hospitals has, with the assistance of the WPA, modernized a two-story building on the Harlem Hospital block, which will provide more than four times the space of the old clinic. These last projects are made necessary by the fact that the recently enlarged facilities of Harlem Hospital already are approaching a crowded condition at times.
Only incessant agitation brought staff appointments in municipal hospitals to Negro physicians. Recently, by a laudable departure in the direction of fairer play, five Negroes were given staff appointments to Queens' General Hospital and one to Sea View; and in the first six months of 1936 seven Negro physicians have been promoted from assistant to associate visiting rank, five from clinical assistants to assistant visiting rank, and seven new clinical appointments have been made. This, with three members of full attending rank and an increase of two members on the Medical Board of Harlem Hospital, represents a spectacular gain in comparison with the slow progress of former years. The Commission report, however, recommends "the admission of Negro physicians, internee and nurses to all city hospitals on merit in accordance with law, and the withholding of municipal financial aid from any institution refusing equal treatment to Negroes."
With the completion of the new health unit, there will no longer be ground for the present complaint that in the two health areas where Negroes are concentrated there is "conspicuous absence of the very agencies which deal with the major problems of Negro healthinfant mortality and tuberculosis."
SIMILARLY, the announcement of two new school buildings for Harlem in the 1937 Board of Education program corrects in prospect the major plant deficiencies complained of in the Commission's school report. It leaves for further consideration the plea for some special provisions to offset the effects of demoralized home and neighborhood conditions upon a considerable section of the Harlem school population. Primarily this is not a school function or responsibility, even though it gravely affects its work. Classes for deficient and delinquent children, special vocational guidance, supervised play are recommended, and also greater protection of school children from the demoralized elements of the adjacent neighborhoods by the police department. Logically and practically, however, it is obvious that only wide-scale slum clearance will reach the roots of such conditions.
One of the rare bright spots in the situation is the fine policy of the New York City school system of entirely disregarding race in the appointment and assignment of Negro school teachers, which policy should point a convincing precedent to other city departments and, for that matter, to other great municipalities.
No field of municipal government is more tied in with a problem such as underlies the Harlem riots than the police department. Even at that time a spirit of general antagonism toward the police was evident, and the fatal shooting of a sixteen-year-old high school student, Lloyd Hobbes, whom the police charge with looting during the riot (a charge which several witnesses dispute), did much to aggravate the bitterness. As the report aptly says, "A policeman who kills is prosecutor, judge and executioner." In fact a series of police shootings in Harlem, continuing down to two quite recent killings of children in the police pursuit of suspected criminals, has brought the community to the point of dangerous resentment toward the police. The frequent heavy mobilization of police forces in Harlem, however well based the fear or probability of public disorder and the recurrence of rioting, has the practical effect of stimulating the very thing it is meant to avertavert tension, resentment, and disrespect for proper police authority. Every close student of the situation sympathizes with the police authorities in their difficult responsibilities, especially during the strenuous campaign against the vice and small-time racketeering which are all too prevalent in Harlem. But respect for and confidence in police authority are primary assets in such a housecleaning campaign, and the good-will and cooperation of the law-abiding, better class element are essential. Restored confidence and good-will are particularly vital in the situation, fraught with possible racial antagonisms.
Surprising and convincing reason for suspecting police brutality and intimidation is the fact that many in the Harlem community feel as much resentment toward Negro police as toward white police, and even toward the Negro police lieutenant, who sometime back was a popular hero and a proud community symbol. The Commission's recommendations, therefore, that the police be given instructions to use greater caution and tact in emergencies and show the strictest regard for citizens' rights, and that a bi-racial Citizens' Public Safety Committee be appointed as an advisory body to the Police Commissioner and to hear possible complaints and grievances against undue use of police power or claims of police brutality and intimidation, are of crucial and constructive importance in a somewhat critical situation. For without restored confidence and unbroken public order, Harlem's wound will not heal.
Dark as the Harlem situation has been, and in a lesser degree still is, the depression in general and the riot in particular have served a diagnostic purpose which, if heeded and turned into a program of constructive civic reform, will give us improvement and progress instead of revolution and anarchy. After all, in these days of economic crisis and reconstruction the Negro has more than racial import. As the man farthest down, he tests the pressure and explores the depths of the social and economic problem. In that sense he is not merely the man who shouldn't be forgotten; he is the man who cannot safely be ignored.
Yet, in addition, Harlem is racially significant as the Negro's greatest and formerly most favorable urban concentration in America. The same logic by which Harlem led the Negro renaissance dictates that it must lead the economic reconstruction and social reformation which we have been considering. There are some favorable signs from within and without that it will: from without, in terms of the promise of the new concern and constructive policy of the Mayor and a few progressive city authorities; from within, in terms of a new type and objective of Negro civic leadership. The latter is evidenced in part by the Mayor's Harlem Commission and its sustained activities, by the ever increasing advisory committees of leading and disinterested citizens, and recently, quite significantly, by the organization of the bi-racial All Peoples' Party in Harlem for independent political action to "rid Harlem of the corrupt political control of the two major parties and end the tyranny of political bosses." Recently 209 delegates from 89 social, civic and religious organizations organized with this objective of substituting civic organization and community welfare for political support and party spoils. A Harlem community-conscious and progressively cooperative is infinitely to be preferred to a Harlem racially belligerent and distempered. Contrast the Harlem of the recent WPA art festival, gaily and hopefully celebrating in a festival of music, art and adult education, dancing in Dorrance Brooks Square, with the Harlem of the riot, a bedlam of missiles, shattered plate glass, whacking night-sticks, mounted patrols, police sirens and police bullets; and one can visualize the alternatives. It is to be hoped that Harlem's dark weather-vane of warning can be turned round to become a high index of constructive civic leadership and reform.