Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading
Harlem: Dark Weather Vane

by Alain Locke

Professor of Philosophy, Howard University

August 1936

1 2 3 4 5

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 avert„avert 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.

Some Recommendations of the Report

Increased hospital and health clinic facilities to combat disproportionate disease in the densely populated Negro areas.

Recommended reorganization of Harlem hospitals and wider admission of Negro physicians to staff appointments, internes' posts and educational facilities at all other municipal hospitals.

New health center for Central Harlem District similar to East Harlem Center and a Negro supervisory health officer [the latter already agreed to by Commissioner Rice].

Additional school buildings and extra educational facilities for vocational guidance, visiting teachers, and playgrounds. [The comparative absence of racial discrimination in the school system is one of the bright features of the report.]

Housing legislation and additional low cost housing projects in line with recommendations of the report. Additional PWA and federal grants must be sought for such projects.

Relaxing of the present tension in public opinion about the policy and attitude of the police in Harlem. The report recommends a Citizens' Public Safety Committee not only to cooperate with the Police Commissioner as an advisory body but as a board of complaint in cases of expected police brutality or reputed violations of citizens' rights.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003