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 ten-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.
Next week we will present Part 2 of this analysis of a report that has waited these many years to be discussed, and as more than one panelist noted, the issues then are just as pressing nowadays.