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Margaret Washington : The New York City Riot
Maragret Washington You know you have to sort of understand what New York City was like in 1900. Lots of Irish. Lots of African Americans, the majority of whom were from the South. So you have a population of black people who have come to the city looking for opportunity. And you have a settled white community that is almost as poor as the African American community. And they're living in some cases in the same neighborhoods. Now this has been a historical problem for African and Irish, African American and Irish in New York City. The last riot they had was in 1863 and again it was Irish and African Americans. In 1900 when you have this population of African Americans who have come from the South living in New York City, there is antagonism and there is animosity. And unfortunately the majority of the people on the police force are Irish. And this confrontation occurs because an African American man, fairly recent immigrant from the South, a young man in his early twenties, Arthur Harris, accosts a policeman in plain clothes who is in the eyes of Arthur, harassing his girlfriend, because the policeman thinks that she is soliciting when actually she's standing there, waiting for her boyfriend. And the policeman is harassing her and of course Harris, because the man is in plain clothes, doesn't know that he's a policeman. And when he confronts the policeman he begins to hit him with his club. And Harris, as a means of self-defense, pulls out his knife and cuts him twice and flees. Flees and leaves the city, goes back to his mother who lives in Washington, D.C. The officer, Robert Thorpe, I believe his name was, dies after a couple of days. And of course there is a manhunt for Harris. This riles the police force and people rally around the home of Thorpe. And African Americans are worried that this is going to create a disturbance. Of course it's August in 1900, there's a heat wave, which is usually one of the precursors of this kind of a situation. As many people, many whites, particularly the Irish, gather around the home of Thorpe on the day of his funeral, an altercation develops between an African American man and one of the white policemen. And this altercation on top of the fact that Thorpe has died creates a wave of terrorism. And actually the perpetrators of this terrorism are whites.

African Americans are preyed upon, African Americans are beaten, not only by white citizens, but by the police force. The police force either participate in the beating and maiming of African Americans, or they look the other way. What they do not do is attempt to protect the African Americans. And African Americans, once they have worked their day's work are afraid to go home. They are literally afraid to go out into the street. And some African Americans actually spend the night at their jobs because they're afraid to go out on the street. And this situation goes on for over 24 hours and it's only a rainstorm that quells the situation. But African Americans are unprepared. After the rainstorm which occurs on August 16th, then they go to the shops, to the pawn shops and they get guns. And uh, one white storekeeper said that after two or three days you couldn't buy a gun in New York City. That the blacks had them all. So African Americans were caught unawares as a result of the incident on August 12th that last through August 15th. But after that they decided that they were not going to be on the defensive again without any weapons of their own.

Race relations in the northern cities are very tense. And African Americans moved to the North with the expectation that there will be less racial problems and in some ways there are. But in other ways there are racial problems of a different sort. There's job competition. There's competition for living space. There is this proximity of black and white which many whites are just not accustomed to. So the tensions that are in the urban centers are not the same tensions that are in the northern urban areas, but they're there.

The rioting began in the black community, the area called "the Tenderloin," which is where the majority of African Americans lived, but also where poor Irish people lived. It spread all over the city, because African Americans, the majority of them had their jobs in other places. So wherever African Americans worked, many whites would lay in wait to accost them as they left their jobs. So the whole city was in an uproar. And the mayor called out the Reserves to quell the disturbances. But the majority of the individuals in the Reserves were policemen and they either participated or looked the other way. African Americans decided that rather than venture out into the streets, they would stay at their jobs. Hundreds of people were injured. Many of them ended up in the hospital. And as a result directly of the riot no one was killed, but several people died later from the wounds that were inflicted, African Americans during the riots.

There was some frustration as far as Du Bois was concerned. Du Bois had grown up in Massachusetts, he had grown up in a white neighborhood. Du Bois had grown up considering himself an American. Traveling South and his experiences after coming back from Berlin and living in the South, teaching at Atlanta University, had taught Du Bois that he was "a Negro," as he put it and it troubled him, this dichotomy or as he later put it, this twoness. And he would sometimes ask in his frustration am I an American, am I a Negro, am I both? Can I be a Negro and be an American? Can I be an American and be a Negro? And Du Bois's sense in 1900 was that America had relegated him to the position of being a Negro and not an American. And he found that very troubling.

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