“[T]hey’re knocking down negroes ‘round here”: Public Racial Violence and Black Self-Defense in Early 20th Century NYC

By Douglas Flowe


On May 27th of 1904 the crackle of gunfire on W. 62nd St. in Manhattan jolted Sarah Lucas awake in the early morning. Dashing to the window she saw a white police officer shooting at a black man she recognized as John Patterson, the night watchman at a construction site across the street. As Patterson hid behind the construction shanty, the policeman continued to shoot, and intermittently “rap” his club against the sidewalk in a call for assistance. Lucas later testified in court: “In that time, I heard the voice of a woman, saying it is awful for that bastard…to kill John Patterson for nothing.” Then “I heard a missile fall in the street,” she reported, referring to a brick pitched at the officer from one of the buildings. According to Lucas, Patterson never emerged from behind the shanty. But the policeman came back to the sidewalk shortly, “looked all around” for the person throwing bricks, aimed up at her window and shot once more. “At that time, I was knocked senseless,” Lucas explained, and when she recovered consciousness she had wounds on her cheek, ear, and shoulder, blood pouring down her face onto her night skirt.

The 1905 trial implicating officer Frank McLaughlin in the murder of John Patterson is an example of violence black New Yorkers often experienced on the city’s streets, a kind of state brutality that prompted many Southern migrants to see the Northern “promised land” as a mirage. Along with the statements of many neighbors, Lucas’ testimony accused McLaughlin of flagrant and unprovoked attacks on a number of residents. McLaughlin’s defense in turn attempted to prove that residents had attacked him without reason and subsequently conspired to wrongfully convict him of murder. The accompanying news sensation and the struggle to control the narrative of events put on display public concerns of police violence and innovatively questioned the authority of officers to “clear the streets” of unwanted citizens, a practice they often employed against all racial groups. But it also opened up dialogue about broader issues of racial violence in which white police and citizens often descended upon black districts to exact revenge for some real or imagined slight. It brought to the fore discourse about the hundreds of African Americans arrested each year for charges as specious as “disorderly conduct,” drunkenness, and solicitation, which actively criminalized the usage of urban space for many newcomers living in stuffy, cramped and overcrowded tenements. And it followed a number of outbreaks of racial violence that ruptured the relatively peaceful propinquity of white and black New Yorkers in the tangled and dense communities of the Tenderloin, Midtown and Harlem. The 1900 riots in the Tenderloin set the stage for black responses to white mob violence with the creation of the black Citizen’s Protective League, an organization that worked to indict white officers and residents involved in the violence. However, some African Americans, realizing that the judicial system could not always protect them from violence on the streets, withdrew from interracial public spaces, bought guns and razors to protect themselves, and attacked police officers who ventured into their neighborhoods.[1]

Rioters dragging a woman out of an 8th Avenue streetcar and beating her during the Tenderloin Race Riot. From the New York World.

Rioters dragging a woman out of an 8th Avenue streetcar and beating her during the Tenderloin Race Riot. From the New York World.

The complexity of these themes of racial violence and self-defense are demonstrated clearly in the trial proceedings. According to McLaughlin, while walking his beat he came upon “quite a crowd” of black residents gathered on 62nd St, “shouting, singing, and using indecent language,” and milling around in front of a “notorious dive.” Approaching the group, he ordered them to disperse and they “moved away reluctantly.” Satisfied that he had disbanded the riffraff, McLaughlin began to leave when, he claimed, John Patterson and another man attacked him. “In the struggle, Patterson and I and this other person had been forced off the sidewalk into the street and I found myself in a struggle with Patterson.” During the fight someone took his nightstick and, McLaughlin alleged, Patterson or his unidentified accomplice slashed the back of his coat with a razor. Finally getting the best of his assailants, McLaughlin attempted to place Patterson under arrest. “[F]or answer, he hurled a brick at me,” McLaughlin explained. Simultaneously, he testified, the group began to congregate around him, yelling “[l]et’s kill the cop, let’s kill the white son of a bitch!” Pulling out his revolver, McLaughlin warned Patterson he would shoot if he “fired another brick,” and discharged a warning shot into the air. According to McLaughlin, this threat had no effect.

McLaughlin hoped the warning shot would attract nearby officers who might help him regain control. However, in the heat of the moment, fearing for his life, he next shot Patterson in the leg as he hurled a brick at him. Davis Chanler, his defense attorney, depicted the residents of 62nd St. as a lawless mob united against him and emphasized the fact the he was outnumbered. McLaughlin then testified that after shooting Patterson, he was struck by a brick as residents showered the street from windows and rooftops, threatening to kill him.[2]

A procession of witnesses for the defense corroborated McLaughlin’s rendering of events and Chanler concluded that he was only completing his duty as a police officer when he shot Patterson. “This man was bound to stay in that neighborhood, under his oath of office, and defend himself. He could not flee, because there would have been charges preferred against him if he had, and he would have been convicted.”[3] In the process of depicting McLaughlin as a white officer under siege by a black mob, Chanler attempted to exploit popular prejudice. Questioning their inherent character, he described a depraved neighborhood of violent tenement-dwellers. He also hoped to discredit the residents of the block by questioning the propriety of carousing on the street in the early morning hours. “Why were those people out in the street, at half past two o’clock in the morning,” he asked. “It was not one of those hot sultry mid-summer nights, which take men and women out into the street for air,” he declared. “Those people were in that evil neighborhood for no good purpose.”[4]

The defense then warned about the consequences of punishing an officer for doing his duty. “Into these dangerous streets pass the policeman alone. Are you going to give carte blanche to the negroes up in West 62nd Street to attack the next police officer who dares to interferer with their midnight orgies?” Meant to tap into established fears of intractable black men committing violent crimes in the streets, Chanler’s question also revealed trepidation about the ways black migrants occupied public space. “Are you going to say that those men and women are at liberty to congregate, at half past two or three or four o’clock in the morning, as they please, and that no officer who is assaulted by them can defend himself?”[5]

Describing a humid night that drove residents outside onto 62nd St., a number of black witnesses gave a very different account of the events. At the beginning of the direct examination for the prosecution, Assistant District Attorney Charles Nott announced that his witnesses would show McLaughlin “deliberately…without any provocation at all, [committed] a brutal and cowardly murder.” His first witness, Robert Telfair, described McLaughlin as a sadistic tyrant threatening everyone on the street. While talking with the owner of a saloon, Telfair heard a scuffle behind him. “I turned to look, to see what the noise was,” he testified, “and…the defendant struck me across the head, and knocked me down.” McLaughlin then “took and clubbed” George Campbell, the saloon owner, for standing in front of his business. After this, Telfair stated, McLaughlin crossed the street to tell Patterson and two others to go inside. According to another resident he approached Patterson yelling “‘[y]ou black son of a bitch, what are you doing here?’” When Patterson answered that he would not leave because he was hired to watch the construction site, McLaughlin “hauled off and hit him with the club.” In the following brawl McLaughlin fired at Patterson three times, hitting him at least once in the back of the thigh as he fled.[6]

A number of residents corroborated Telfair’s story and presented damning testimony about the aftermath of the shooting. In their version of the story, McLaughlin did not act like an officer under attack. Awakened by the sound of one of her neighbors “cussing” about the shooting, Rosa Green saw a number of cops standing around talking beneath her window. When asked about their conversation, she explained that “the onliest [sic] thing” she heard McLaughlin say was that “he had shot two coons.” Another resident testified that McLaughlin “relieved himself” while “walking along” in the lot near where Patterson lied injured. The most emotional testimony came from John Patterson’s widow, Carrie. After hearing of the shooting, she left her house in her nightgown and slippers and ran toward the lot to see Patterson. Denied entrance to the area by police officers, she protested, telling them the victim was her husband. “[I]t don’t make any difference, who he is. You can’t come,” was the response she remembered from the exchange. “[A]nd my husband said, ‘Is that you, Carrie?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said ‘Come to me.’” In her statement, she also accused officers of conspiring against her husband since she overheard McLaughlin tell Officer Brady why he shot him. “I thought he had a gun, but he hasn’t got as much as a pen knife. We will say that the coon had a razor,” she recalled from their conversation.[7]

Using this testimony, Nott argued that McLaughlin attacked Patterson and other residents of the community for not leaving the street quickly enough on his order. Defending the character of his witnesses he reassured the jury they were “of good character, laboring people, in humble circumstances of life, poor, but still honest.” In particular, he depicted the slain victim as an honest and hardworking man. “Here is Patterson, whose reputation is not impeached…engaged at work, stricken down at the place where he is working, by a police officer, who is not hurt, but Patterson is shot in the back.” He also defended the residents’ right to use the public space of their neighborhood for leisure. “The night in question was a warm, sultry night, and in accordance with the habits of these colored people, and their sociability…the block was not deserted. There were women sitting on stoops, there were women in the windows, and men sitting on stoops and conversing with each other.” Nott then admonished McLaughlin for proclaiming it his duty to drive residents into their homes. “[I]f what they are doing does not disturb that neighborhood, and no complaint is made, they have the right to be there” and “police have no right to drive them into their houses and club them,” he declared.[8]

Nott also brought to light a number of glaring inconsistencies in the case for the defense. He pointed out that McLaughlin claimed Patterson faced him and was in the process of hurling a brick when he shot him. However, physicians confirmed Patterson had an exit would in the front of his leg indicating he was shot with his back turned. McLaughlin also testified that he lost his nightstick in the initial fracas with Patterson, yet officer Brady claimed to have heard him rapping it on the sidewalk calling for assistance after the fight. Nott also accused McLaughlin of cutting his own coat in order to falsely claim that Patterson attacked him with a razor. One newspaper article substantiated this allegation reporting that “McLaughlin took the dead man’s razor, and, turning into a convenient alley, deliberately slashed the back of this coat in a dozen places.” Nott supplemented these claims of corruption by mentioning McLaughlin’s history of attacking citizens who resisted his orders and his extensive record of violence. Less than a month before the trial began he had been accused of assaulting a New-York World staff member without provocation. “To break a man’s arm twice in as many minutes is heroic,” a New York Tribune reporter wrote referring to the charge, “but McLaughlin, wishing to add to his laurels, drew his gun, ordering up his victim’s remaining hand.” The Tribune also reported on “half a dozen…victims of his brutality, ready to prefer charges of assault against him. Heretofore they have been afraid to do so.” By the end of the trial the tide of public sentiment had clearly turned against McLaughlin. In closing, Judge Cowing asked the jury to consider the “absolute right of freedom of action” enjoyed by all New Yorkers when their actions do not “interfere with public order or security.” After little more than an hour of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter in the first degree. [9]

McLaughlin’s conviction removed one violent officer from the NYPD. But it only narrowly addressed the viciousness of his crimes, and the brutality of many other officers never made it to trial. There was, as well, the issue of white mob violence, the most potent example being the Tenderloin riots a few years earlier. That incident began on August 12 in 1900 when a recent black southern migrant, Arthur J. Harris, killed a white plainclothes officer, Robert J. Thorpe, because he thought he was harassing his girlfriend. A variety of smaller conflicts following the memorial service for the slain officer culminated in hours of rioting that left more than seventy blacks injured.[10]

Tabloids, black leaders, and citizen’s groups quickly responded with outrage to the battering of innocents. However, for some African Americans, complaints and indictments were not urgent enough responses. After several days of rioting many Tenderloin residents purchased cheap firearms at local hardware stores and pawnshops. A survey conducted the day after the initial clashes found black residents buying more than 145 revolvers and large amounts of ammunition. One bartender, reportedly seen purchasing a large arsenal of weapons, threatened: “I understand they’re knocking down negroes ‘round here. The first man tries it on me gets this…” Others, angry that police officers had participated in the riot, showered patrol cops with garbage, bricks, and bottles from rooftops and windows. For two months after the first series of riots, frequent clashes between black and white residents in the Tenderloin resulted in at least two deaths. African Americans had made it clear that they planned to defend themselves from future violence.[11]

White violence against black migrants in New York was not unusual for the city’s history. But within the context of the riots and the police brutality trial of Frank McLaughlin, it hints at broader developments in the North. As black migrants came north in search of better lives, they often met conditions that contrasted sharply with their expectations for safety from public racial violence and the ability to protect themselves and their families from white aggressions. Although a majority chose to meet these challenges lawfully, a significant number met violence with violence. Many also chose to withdraw into their communities away from predominantly white spaces and maintain the boundaries of their communities with a reputation for violence and retaliation. In The Black North in 1901, his crucial study of African American migrants in Northern cities, W.E.B. Du Bois wondered how black New Yorkers endured the poverty, discrimination, and violence they encountered there. “The answer is clear and peculiar,” Du Bois concludes. “They do not stand it; they withdraw themselves as far as possible from it into a world of their own.” As black migrants began to realize that riots and police violence meant that white and mixed-race leisure spaces were dangerous to inhabit, they formed establishments in black enclaves, opened their own drinking spots, restaurants, and pool rooms, and frequented black owned and operated saloons. The events surrounding the Tenderloin riots and McLaughlin’s trial represent moments of simultaneity when black migrants understood that New York City would not be a refuge from many of the issues they wished to escape by leaving the South. However, they also exemplify the determination of black men and women to defend their communities not only through legal means and protest, but also with revolvers, knives, razor blades, broken bottles and bricks launched from rooftops.

More than one hundred years later we find ourselves embroiled in the same conversations, poring over countless grainy videos of police enacted violence, and once again debating the role of the police officer, the legality of their use of force, and the character, morals, and rights of the victims of police violence. Questions about black behavior and aggression spiraled around the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and countless others in a media environment still obsessed with tropes of giant or shadowy, intractable black men. This coincides with a narrative that trivializes the deaths of black people deemed criminal, one that has forced the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into the global lexicon. Yet these are not new issues, they are only reshaped around what Michelle Alexander calls the “new Jim Crow.” A 21st century version of social, spatial, and legal systems built upon the containment of the perceived popular threat of people segregated along lines of race. Both the McLaughlin trial and the riots fortify our understanding of how steady these issues have remained, even in the face of a changing modern world. The fact that a jury convicted McLaughlin (although for the lesser charge of manslaughter) forces us to question the meaning of the indictments and convictions of murderous police officers in recent cases. Do isolated convictions address the broader issues of perception that make this violence seem justified and necessary to many observers? No matter the answer, a historical understanding of racial violence and self-defense is essential to understand the interplay of these issues in the present and future.

Douglas Flowe is Postdoctoral Fellow of Inequality and Identity at Washington University in St. Louis.

[1] People v. Frank McLaughlin, Transcripts of the County of New York, Court of General Sessions 1883-1927, Case # 478, roll 82, p. 429, 117-120.

[2] Ibid. 429, 382-385.

[3] Ibid., 450-451, 299, 302, 336, 365, 589.

[4] Assistant District Attorney Nott objected to the question of the character of the neighborhood. “I never heard of proving the reputation of a neighborhood. You can’t prove the reputation of a people,” he protested. Judge Cowing sustained the objection telling Chanler “I think the form of the question is objectionable.” Chanler retorted that he had “prepared some authorities on this subject.” By bringing the question of the character of the neighborhood into the discussion Chanler hoped to depict McLaughlin as an officer beleaguered by a hostile community bent on keeping authority out. Ibid, 396-397.

[5] Ibid, 481-482.485, 489, 495. 587.

[6] Ibid, 4, 6; Robert Telfair testified Officer Frank McLaughlin struck him a second time before moving on. “He waited until I got up and he struck me again across the thigh.” Later in the trial Samuel Jackson testified that he witnessed McLaughlin beat both Robert Telfair and George Campbell before he crossed the street. Telfair did not seem to recollect the assault of George Campbell as he was busy attempting to escape. People v. McLaughlin, 28-29, 58, 68, 179.

[7] Ibid, 130, 152, Carrie Patterson’s testimony begins on 192. Patterson testifies again later during the prosecution’s rebuttal on 507.

[8] Ibid, 4, 6, 596-597, 595.

[9] Nott also brought the inconsistency of McLaughlin’s story about the attack to the surface during his closing statement. “Was he stamped on, kicked, slugged? Not a scratch on him? And yet he says he had this frightful struggle down the street, and this enormous man, Patterson, taller and heavier than himself, fell down on him, and he was pinioned under Patterson, and here was this crowd around him crying ‘Kill the son of a bitch’, but they did not touch him, though they could have punched him and kicked him and not a scratch on him.” Ibid, 453, 426; “To Arrest Patrolman,” New-York Tribune/Herald Tribune, Dec 22, 1904; “Clubbed By Policeman,” New-York Tribune/Herald Times, December 21, 1904; “Murder Charged, Too,” New-York Tribune, Dec 29, 1904; Although the allegations of McLaughlin slashing his own coat were not entered into the trial as evidence, the Assistant District Attorney’s investigation concluded the slashes could not have been dealt by a razor in a fight because there was no evidence of slashing on McLaughlin’s shirt or skin beneath his coat; Ibid, 660, 675.

[10] Marcy S. Sacks, Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 40-41.

[11] Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem : the Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 59-60.