1943: When Police Shot a Harlem Soldier

Private Robert BandyThis week in NYC we are under the first curfew imposed on the city since the rioting in Harlem in August 1943 following the shooting of a Black soldier. As veterans, we believe the story of 1943 should be told. 

In November 1942, Private David Wood, assigned to the 9th Engineer Regiment at Fort Dix, New Jersey, was shot in his stomach by a police officer while he waited for tickets at a movie theater. Violence and discrimination against Black troops serving during World War II was pervasive not only in the South, but nationwide. Black veterans of World War I, especially those who served grueling months fighting on the front lines in Europe as Harlem Hellfighters, remembered clearly the discrimination and hatred they faced both during their service and upon their return home. The murder of Private Wood by a white policeman marked the tenth murder of a Black soldier since Pearl Harbor

America had seen decades of racial violence and rioting, and 1943 was especially violent. On June 15, 1943, thousands of white residents of Beaumont, Texas, destroyed and looted black businesses and homes over two days when a white woman stated that a black man had raped her, although no assailant was never identified. On June 20, 1943, Detroit erupted in racial violence as white aggression over racially integrated factory labor fomented a night of violence and retaliation, in which 17 Black residents were killed by police. The summer of 1943 was one in which Black communities across the country were tense and on edge as their young men were recruited to fight overseas and whole communities served in the broader war effort at home, despite the discrimination and violence they were forced to suffer. 


Harlem poet Langston Hughes described the inequities of fighting Nazism abroad, while white supremacist violence terrorized Black Americans at home in "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943":

Looky here, America
What you done done –
Let things drift
Until the riots come.

Now your policemen
Let your mobs run free.
I reckon you don’t care
Nothing about me.

You tell me that hitler
Is a mighty bad man.
I guess he took lessons
from the ku klux klan.

You tell me mussolini’s
Got an evil heart.
Well, it mus-a been in Beaumont
That he had his start –

Cause everything that hitler
And mussolini do,
Negroes get the same
Treatment from you.

You jim crowed me
Before hitler rose to power –
And you’re still jim crowing me
Right now, this very hour.

Yet you say we’re fighting
For democracy.
Then why don’t democracy
Include me?

I ask you this question
Cause I want to know
How long I got to fight

It was a hot summer in Harlem by August 1943, and members of the Black community were on edge. They knew Black Americans were under threat of violence across the country even as the nation was said to be "united" in the war effort. They knew Black soldiers had been murdered in uniform. Leaders spoke, wrote, and organized toward justice. But nothing seemed to be changing.

The weekend of August 1, 1943, Private Robert Bandy stayed at the Braddock Hotel in Harlem. He and his mother had chosen the Braddock as a midway point from her home in Connecticut and his military assignment in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he was assigned to the 730th Military Police Battalion. Bandy was taking the weekend to introduce his mother to his girlfriend. That Sunday morning they had breakfast at the hotel together, then went to church, and spent the day together with friends before going to see a movie. As many soldiers did, Bandy wore his uniform. When he returned to the hotel with his mother that evening after the movie to pick up her luggage, they came upon an altercation in the lobby between a woman named Margie Polite and a policeman named James Collins. Collins wrestled with the woman, who shouted out, "protect me from this white man!" Bandy stepped in, and Collins turned to strike him with a nightstick. Bandy caught the nightstick, hit Collins in the head, and knocked him down. Collins, lying on the ground, pulled his revolver from its holster and shot Bandy. (Source: Harlem At War: The Black Experience in WWII)

The sound of gunfire set off a tinderbox of tension in Harlem. Although the shot Collins fired had wounded Bandy, and he was able to walk to a nearby hospital for care - word spread quickly that a white policeman had shot a Black soldier in front of his mother, and that he was dead. Within a short time, thousands of Harlem residents gathered in protest at police headquarters on West 123rd Street, but the crowd soon devolved into violence - smashing windows, clashes with police, fires, overturning cars, and property damage estimated at $5 million. The rioting lasted through the next day, when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called in the National Guard and imposed a curfew. Five people were killed, 400 were wounded, and 500 were arrested. This was noted as the most violent incident in Harlem's history.

Adam Clayton Powell, who at that time served as a Council Member, said what fueled the riots were the "blind smoldering and unorganized resentment against Jim Crow treatment of Negro men in the armed forces and the unusual high rents and cost of living forced upon the Negroes of Harlem."

Military service has long been integral to the struggle of minority groups of Americans to prove their equal worth and citizenship - and it has served to highlight the inequities that yet remain. This year we celebrate 75 years since the end of World War II, and we honor the profound service and sacrifices of a generation of Americans to defeat fascism and enable freedom across the world. But we must also be clear in our memory that Black veterans served at a time when communities smoldered in racist violence and inequity. The military was racially segregated. Even blood donations were segregated. Funeral services were in some cases unavailable for Black troops within hundreds of miles. Black troops fought for freedom abroad but were denied it here at home. 

Just last month Dreasjon "Sean" Reed, a Black Air Force veteran was shot and killed by a white policeman in Indianapolis, sparking protests. Reed is yet another case of an unarmed Black person killed by police. The protests in Minneapolis, NYC, and cities across the nation following last week's murder of George Floyd by police officers have resulted in violence and now the first curfew in NYC since 1943, and our President is mobilizing our nation's military--National Guard, Reserve, and Active troops--to intervene.

Our troops sign up to protect our Constitution and fight for our nation's freedoms. But are we asking our troops to defend freedom--or to preserve inequitable systems and violence here at home?