A report that wasn’t issued 86 years ago following the riot of 1935 was at the core of the daylong event at the Schomburg Center Tuesday. Under the rubric of “Conditions in Harlem Revisited: From the 1936 Mayor’s Commission Report to Today,” a coterie of academics, clergy, community activists and leaders, and city officials assembled and discussed the report from several angles, including employment and economic development, housing and land use, justice and public safety, healthcare and environment, and education and recreation.
The 118-page report was authored by a commission formed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following the riot and chaired by attorney Arthur Garfield Hays. Among the Black notables on the commission were poet Countee Cullen, Hubert Delany, and Eunice Carter. “The insecurity of the individual in Harlem against police aggression is in our judgment one of the most potent causes of the existing hostility to authority,” the report concluded.
This concern resonated at the core of the various panels assembled and
Pauline Toole, commissioner of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS), framed the discussions at the beginning of the event. “So many portions of the 1936 Mayor’s Commission Report read as if they could have been written today. That’s why it was so important for us to release it to the public now—something that was done by the New York Amsterdam News at the time, but not the LaGuardia Administration. When people continue to feel excluded in employment, education and other sectors of life, we must look at what got us to this place in time, and then the path forward.”
While a central aim of the gathering was to draw comparisons between Harlem of the past and the current situation, most of the speakers on the panels chose to focus on the contemporary conditions, noting that very little has changed since 1936.
Arva Rice, President & CEO of the New York Urban League, posed her remarks in a comparative approach during the second panel on employment and economic development, citing the differences between yesterday and today. “As I read through the report I was struck by the things they didn’t have, such as our agency, Lloyd Williams, the Harlem Business Alliance, Letitia James, Inez Dickens, Mayor Adams and the other institutions we now have.” Curtis Archer, President of the Harlem Community Development Corporation agreed with Rice and listed the late architect Max Bond as another significant person missing from the 1930s, and Williams added that Bond was the architect who designed the Schomburg Center.
Regina Smith, Executive Director of the Harlem Business Alliance mentioned the need for the access to capital and the creation of more Black businesses. When asked by the moderator why she lived in Harlem, she said, “I love Black people.” One of the problems that Black residents of Harlem experienced in the thirties and true today, said Kim Phillips Fein a historian at Columbia University, was that “Blacks were and have been excluded from working in public utilities and public services.” Why, she was asked? “Because of racism and they do not possess the power they need to do so.”
Dr. Mary Bassett, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, admitted that she had never heard of the report, and neither had many of the city officials. “And it is so contemporary in the way the riot was triggered by police action,” she explained. A main problem she said was “structural racism” that has a deleterious impact on “living conditions.” Ebone Carrington, a managing Director with Manatt Health, was insightful in helping the moderator Dr. Torian Easterling, First Deputy Commissioner/Chief Equity Officer at NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, frame the comments advocacy, particularly to challenge the overcrowding factor and providing representation consistent with the background of the patients. Monique Hardin-Cordero, who has spent a generation in the healthcare industry and Director of Program at the National Kidney Foundation, and recruited to the panel at the last minute, observed that “We have to galvanize our resources” in order to deal with an expanding agenda of challenges.
Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright, Strategic Initiatives, spearheaded the panel on “Justice and Public Safety, and the Rev. Fred Davie of the Union Theological Seminary, emphasized that “trust” is the basic ingredient between the police and the community. “Racial bias and prejudice were at the heart of the Mayor’s report in 1936,” he said, and one of the remedies today can be facilitated through the community boards and “investigations initiated by the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board.” The panel’s objective was right in Dr. Bruce Western’s bailiwick, where he is the Director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University. Central to his discussion was the issue of economic poverty and he concluded that much of that is systemic and “related to the history of racial segregation.” For all the good and solid advice, Iesha Sekou, a community activist, and founder of Street Corner Resources, insisted that “We have to get beyond talk…action is necessary. And we have to create forums where our young people can speak on violence and their backgrounds.”
She did not cite the 1936 report but it was a young person, Lino Rivera, a Black Latino, who was arrested and from which a false rumor circulated that he had been beaten in the basement of a department store, setting off the disturbance. Police relations to the community were crucial to remarks by Flores A. Forbes, Adjunct Associate Professor Graduate School of Architecture Planning & Preservation at Columbia University, and former member of the Black Panther Party, highlighting conditions that were true in the 1930s and thirty years later. “We were living under terror then and during the sixties,” he said, and the terror continues said Mia White, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the New School. White also noted the infrastructural similarities that existed in the thirties and today, much of which pivoted on housing and land use, the topic of the panel.
The panel was moderated by Marco Carrion, Executive Director of El Puente, and included Wallace L. Ford II, Professor of Public Administration at Medgar Evers College, and Sideya Sherman, commissioner, Mayor’s Office of Equity, underscored the housing problems. For Ford a plan of collaborative development was essential in the quest of affordable housing and “elected officials must be held accountable,” he said. Sherman said public housing was one the developments out of the riot, “but there has been a steady decline nowadays in public housing.” And many of the points they made were put forth in the opening plenary by Dr. Shango Blake, C-Director of NYC Speaks, and the son of distinguished educators; by William Rodgers III, Vice President and Director of the Institute of Economic Equity, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; and Professor Cheryl Greenberg, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity College. Economic wealth disparity was a central concern for Rodgers and it tied in directly to Dr. Blake’s remarks about the continuing problem of systemic racism. Greenberg, as she did so well in her book “Or Does It Explode?” recounted again the issues that encumbered Harlem during the Depression and the riots.
Black women in education played a prominent role in the report–though were generally ignored—said Dr. Ansley Erickson, Associate Professor of History and Education Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and she evoked such memorable teachers and activists as Gertrude Ayer, Ella Baker, and Hubert Harrison but “basically very little has changed,” she lamented. City College Professor Terri Watson echoed Erickson’s comments in her role as moderator on the “Education and Recreation,” panel, that included Dr. Basil Smikle, a noted scholar and political commentator and Dr. John Reddick of the Harlem Focus Series. Both picked up on Watson’s notion about the absences of “Black agency” as an important lesson to be learned from the report and today. Smikle had some significant advice about independent schools, a topic close to his heart given his role in the founding of the Eagle Academy. Reddick experience and service on Cityscape resonated on his discussion about the need for recreational outlets to curb discrimination and violence.
Glenn Hunter, Co-founder and Co-director of Harlem Archives, had the unenviable job of summarizing the conference, which he did succinctly and insightfully, moving meticulous through each panel, where the through line was racism and discrimination. “We must make a serious investment in our young people,” he said toward the end of his remarks. Deputy Mayor Wright in her closing remarks posed a very interesting question, “have we moved the needle forward?”
It has taken nearly a century to get to that question and there is still much work to be done to rectify and to improve on all the issues raised at this very informative daylong conference. Even with the technological advances at our disposal, the need to share the long ago report was less than perfect with those online unable to have the chat room and closed captions available. Perhaps these problems like those discussed at the conference will be resolved in the next 86 years.