Commission's History

2024 marks 80 years since New York City recognized that in order to address racial disparities, concrete action was needed. Harlem had been the site of racial tension, police violence, and unrest that flared in 1935, and again in 1943, as in many cities across the country. Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia took a step by creating the Mayor's Committee on Unity to address citywide concerns about race relations and: 

"make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality."  
The early days of the Committee were met with challenges. Members tried to effect change using persuasion, but the Committee lacked any teeth to bring about real change. By the mid 1950s, it was clear that without legal enforcement powers. the Committee couldn't holistically address the causes and manifestations of discrimination and bias in NYC  

As a result, the Committee was reorganized and granted investigative authority. The new, permanent city agency was renamed the Commission on Intergroup Relations.  
The Commission was given the power to: 

  • receive and investigate complaints; 
  • initiate its own investigations;  
  • hold hearings;  
  • and, make recommendations to the mayor. 

And the Commission leveraged this mandate to study prejudice in New York City and opened channels of dialogue between racial, religious, and ethnic groups throughout the city. This remains a core function of the Commission – which works daily to cultivate a culture of dignity and respect, working with city agencies and communities. The Commission made recommendations to the Mayor and also worked with state and federal actors to develop best practices in preventing and responding to acts of bias and discrimination.  

The late fifties and sixties saw an increase in passage of city laws to overtly tackle racial and ethnic discrimination and disparities, starting with housing.  As the Commission’s authority expanded, its name was changed to better capture the wide breadth of its mandate. 

In 1962, the agency became the Commission on Human Rights. Complementing the change in name, in 1965, the New York City Human Rights Law was passed and extended the Commission's jurisdiction to prosecute discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and other protected categories in employment, public spaces, and housing.   

In the years since, the Commission’s own focus on anti-Black racism has been informed by conversations agency staff had with Black New Yorkers. Those insights guided our Anti-black Racism Report and helped us identify steps for strengthening our work to combat anti-black racism. 

We continue to examine the role racism has played in the five boroughs, aiding in the fight for civil rights for years to come, so that New York is a place where people can live, work, and thrive free from discrimination.