A report that was not released 86 years ago after the 1935 riot was the focus of Tuesday’s all-day event at the Schomburg Center. Under the heading “Conditions in Harlem Revisited: From the 1936 Mayors’ Commission Report to the Present,” a clique of academics, clergy, community activists and leaders, and city officials gathered and discussed the report from a variety of angles, including employment and economic development, housing and land use, justice and public safety, health and environment, and education and recreation.
The 10-page report was written by a commission formed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia after the riot and headed by attorney Arthur Garfield Hays. Black figures on the commission included poet Countee Cullen, Hubert Delany and Eunice Carter. “Individual insecurity in Harlem in the face of police aggression is, in our opinion, one of the strongest causes of existing hostility to authority,” the report concluded.
This concern was reflected at the heart of the various panel discussions assembled, and Pauline Toole, Commissioner of the New York Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS), framed the discussions at the beginning of the event. “So many parts of the 1936 Mayor’s Commission report read as if they could have been written today. That’s why it was so important to us to open it to the public now – something that was done by the New York Amsterdam News at the time, but not the LaGuardia administration. As people continue to feel excluded from employment, education and other areas of life, we need to look at what got us to this place in time and then the way forward.”
While a key goal of the meeting was to draw comparisons between Harlem’s past and the current situation, most speakers on the panel discussions chose to focus on today’s conditions, noting that very little has changed since 1936 has changed.
Arva Rice, President and CEO of the New York Urban League, presented her remarks in a comparative approach during the second panel on employment and economic development, noting the differences between yesterday and today. “As I read through the report, I was struck by the things that they didn’t have, like our agency, Lloyd Williams, the Harlem Business Alliance, Letitia James, Inez Dickens, Mayor Adams and the other institutions that we have now.” Curtis Archer, President of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, agreed with Rice, listing the late architect Max Bond as another significant person missing in the 1930s, and Williams added that Bond was the architect who designed the Schomburg Center designed.
Regina Smith, executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance, mentioned the need for access to capital and the creation of more black businesses. When asked by the presenter why she lived in Harlem, she said, “I love black people.” One of the problems faced by black Harlem residents in the 1930s and that still holds true today, said Kim Phillips Fein, a historian at Columbia University, was that “Black people have been and are being excluded from work in public utilities and public services.” Why was she asked? “Because of racism and they don’t have the power they need to do that.”
dr New York State Department of Health Commissioner Mary Bassett admitted she had never heard of the report, and neither had many of the city officials. “And it’s so timely how the uprising was triggered by police action,” she explained. A main problem is “structural racism”, which has an adverse effect on “living conditions”. Ebone Carrington, a Manatt Health executive, helped presenter Dr. Torian Easterling, first deputy commissioner/chief equity officer of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, insightful in framing the comments’ endorsement, particularly to challenge the crowding factor and care portrayal consistent with patient backgrounds. Monique Hardin-Cordero, who spent a generation in the healthcare industry and program director at the National Kidney Foundation and was recruited to the panel at the last minute, said “we need to ramp up our resources” to cope with an expanding agenda of challenges.
Next week we will present part 2 of this analysis of a report that has waited so many years to be debated and, as more than one panelist noted, the issues are just as pressing today.