Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Margie Polite, the Riot Starter: Harlem, 1943

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Margie Polite, the Riot Starter: Harlem, 1943

Article excerpt

When on September 11, 1943, Magistrate Charles E. Ramsgate sentenced thirty-five-year-old African American Margie Polite to a year's probation for her role in the Harlem riots that broke out on the night of August 1, she had already been in jail for six weeks. Although Polite was initially charged with felonious assault on patrolman James Collins, who had arrested her in the lobby of Harlem's Braddock Hotel for disorderly conduct, she was ultimately sentenced only on the disorderly conduct charge. She had no prior record, as Ramsgate conceded when he sentenced her to probation ("Riot Starter Sentenced" 15). Why then the delay in her sentencing? And why had her bail been set at $10,000--an amount apparently too exorbitant for Polite to raise--when hundreds of other participants charged with offenses such as suspicion of burglary, breaking windows, striking policemen, or receiving stolen property were released on much lower bail or were sentenced immediately to as little as thirty days ("500 Arraigned" 11)? Magistrate Thomas A. Aurelio, who presided at the arraignment of Polite and another African American woman, forty-year-old Florine Roberts, justified the bail because of the assault charge that was later dropped and because "it look[ed to him] as if Polite precipitated the whole [riot]" ("500 Arraigned" 11). Headlines in the New York Times, which referred to Polite as the "riot starter" and the "woman whose attack started Harlem disorders," reflect the same conviction about Polite's role ("Riot Starter Sentenced" 15). (1) When he sentenced her, Ramsgate pronounced sternly, "I agree with the police and the District Attorney's office ... that your disturbance was actually responsible for that rioting. I hope you will always realize that you were responsible for that rioting" ("500 Arraigned" 11).

The rioting for which Ramsgate blamed Polite lasted from about 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 1, 1943, until about dawn the next day. Six people were killed, all of them black, and estimates of injuries ranged from 185 to nearly 700. (2) The disturbance was confined to Harlem, where looting and vandalism were widespread, with damages estimated at about five million dollars. Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., author of The Harlem Riot of 1943, reports that over 1,450 Harlem businesses were attacked and about 590 people were arrested (102, 105); Nat Brandt, citing an Uptown Chamber of Commerce survey, claims in his book, Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII, that "a total of 1,485 stores [were] damaged and looted; 4,495 plate-glass windows smashed" (207). Looking back on a night of devastation in a radio broadcast on Monday morning, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia affirmed the restoration of law and order and lamented that "shame has come to our city" along with "sorrow" for Harlem's residents (qtd. in Capeci, Harlem Riot 104). In pronouncing Polite's sentence and charging her with responsibility, Ramsgate clearly meant for Polite to feel this shame.

Yet Langston Hughes in his poem, "The Ballad of Margie Polite," first published two months after the riot in the black weekly newspaper the New York Amsterdam News, seems to honor rather than censure Polite for her role as a catalyst:

    Margie warn't nobody
   Important before--But
   she ain't just nobody
   Now no more.
   She started the riots!
   Harlemites say
   August 1st is
   MARGIE'S DAY. (21-28) 

Hughes's tone is celebratory rather than condemnatory, as he empathizes with the feelings which prompted Polite to "[cuss] out/the cop that night" and to give in to "the urge to raise hell" (3-4, 8). As Hughes explained in some of his Chicago Defender columns published in the weeks following the riot, while he did not condone the rioters' actions, he profoundly understood the feelings behind them ("Letter" 100-01). He urged white shopkeepers in Harlem to heed the wake-up call that the recent riot had been ("Suggestions" 102-03), and in his poem he salutes the woman who first sounded that call, keeping

    the Mayor--
   And Walter White--
   And everybody
   Up all night. … 
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