Simmering racial tensions and economic frustrations boil over in New York City on the night of August 1, 1943, culminating in what is now known as the Harlem Riot of 1943. During an altercation in the lobby of the Braddock Hotel, a white police officer shoots a Black soldier, Robert Bandy, triggering a massive uprising.
Overwhelmingly white before the Great Migration, Harlem was 89 percent Black by the time the United States entered World War II. Despite the cultural innovations that accompanied these changes, known as the Harlem Renaissance, the neighborhood’s businesses remained mostly white-owned, and landlords and business owners continued to discriminate against Black residents. World War II brought not only conscription but also a higher cost of living, putting even more strain on a Black community whose economy was still controlled almost entirely by whites.
On the evening of August 1, a Black woman named Marjorie Polite checked into the Braddock, a historic hotel that had fallen into disrepair. Unsatisfied with her room, she asked for a refund at the front desk. The ensuing altercation led a white policeman, James Collins, to arrest her for disorderly conduct, during which time Bandy, a military policeman based in New Jersey, arrived to meet his visiting mother for dinner. The New York Police Department’s official report recorded that Bandy attacked Collins, but Bandy and his mother claimed that they merely tried to stop him from pushing Polite and prevented him from hitting her with his nightstick. Collins shot Bandy, who was taken to a hospital and treated for superficial wounds.
As a rumor spread that Collins had killed Bandy, crowds assembled near the Braddock and soon began to riot. They turned their rage on local white-owned businesses, leading Black business owners to hurriedly post signs announcing that their stores were Black-owned. Six Black residents were killed and nearly 500 were injured as the NYPD and, at the behest of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the Army moved into the streets of Harlem. La Guardia did his best to downplay the riot, but the unrest did draw the attention of the federal Office of Price Administration and of La Guardia’s government, which pressured local landlords to comply with price restrictions and stop gouging residents. The riot also affected Harlem residents like James Baldwin, Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) and the poet Langston Hughes, whose poem “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943” ends with a reference to the sad irony of African Americans fighting for a country that did not see them as equals: “I ask you this question/ Cause I want to know/ How long I got to fight/ BOTH HITLER–AND JIM CROW.”