When three white New Orleans police officers confronted Robert Charles and Leonard Pierce as they sat talking on a porch late in the evening of July 23, 1900, they expected obedience. Charles and Pierce were black, the legal regime of Jim Crow was ferocious, and the threat of white violence that sustained racial subordination was a constant. But Robert Charles was through tolerating the random harassment that was part of everyday life for black people in the United States. He had done nothing wrong, he believed in the need for black self-defense, and he was armed. Charles’s resistance in the summer of 1900 demonstrated that there were limits to the submissiveness of the oppressed. But it also revealed the thorough viciousness of white supremacy in the age of segregation.
Robert Charles was born in Mississippi in 1865 and grew up working as a sharecropper before moving to New Orleans in pursuit of greater economic opportunity. Though he managed to earn a living there as a day laborer, his prospects were still fairly limited and he made no secret of the fact that he resented the discrimination and routine humiliations faced by black men in the city. By the late 1890s, Charles had begun to gravitate toward the political movement of AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who advocated emigration to Africa as the only path to genuine freedom for black people. Charles also collected weapons and usually carried a gun for protection, and some people would later report that they believed he even manufactured his own ammunition.
The three police officers who approached Charles and Pierce knew none of that. Pursuing typically generic reports about “two suspicious looking Negroes,” they assumed the billy clubs and pistols they carried would cow any black men they encountered. They were wrong. This time, their questioning of Robert Charles escalated into a confrontation. Charles attempted to stand. The officers took that as a threat, and one began beating Charles with his club. During the ensuing struggle, both the police and Charles pulled their guns and opened fire. Charles injured one of the officers and fled the scene, bleeding from a gunshot wound. He ran to his apartment on Fourth Street in the Faubourg Livaudais, located today upriver from the French Quarter, between the Central Business District and the Garden District. When police arrived to apprehend him the next morning, Charles opened fire on them and killed two officers.
Taking advantage of the chaos that followed the firefight, Charles fled yet again, by which point word began circulating that a manhunt was underway. Mobs of armed white people, their anger stoked by some of the city’s newspapers, started gathering in the streets of New Orleans. Ostensibly they wanted to help find Robert Charles. In truth, they wanted to vent their rage on nearly any black New Orleanian they could find. For three days, as many as one thousand whites roamed the streets, indiscriminately shooting at and beating black people. Finally, on July 27, Charles was located in a building on Saratoga Street in the Faubourg Lafayette, at which point the police and the mob converged on the location and besieged it.
But Charles refused to surrender. Armed only with a rifle, he kept a crowd of hundreds at bay for hours, ultimately shooting more than twenty white people and killing an additional three. Finally, the police decided simply to set fire to the building, and Charles was shot dead when he tried to escape. As was common at a lynching, members of the mob grabbed Charles’s body, kept firing bullets into it, and proceeded to stomp on and tear at it until there was practically nothing left. They then continued to riot, murdering roughly a dozen black people, injuring dozens, and burning down several black schools before finally stopping only after the mayor threatened to call out the state militia. On July 29, what remained of Robert Charles was buried in an unmarked grave lest it be disinterred and carved up for souvenirs.
Whites in New Orleans used the example of Robert Charles to justify black subordination and their assertions about the supposed savagery of black men. Many black leaders too, both in New Orleans and across the country, condemned what Charles had done. But some saw righteousness in his demand for basic dignity and in his determination to fight back with violence when he would not be accorded any. Famed anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, for example, referred to Robert Charles as “the hero of New Orleans.” Legendary bluesman Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have written a song commemorating Charles’s courage. White Bostonian and founder of the Anti-Lynching League Lillian Jewett traveled to New Orleans to raise money for the families of those victimized by the white mob and to call for an end to anti-black brutality. For her troubles, a secret organization of white people in New Orleans calling itself The Green Turtle Club put a bounty on her head and threatened to lynch her.
The story of Robert Charles has largely faded from our collective memory. But the events of late July 1900 marked a moment when black people’s frustration with terroristic violence and with white disregard for their well-being exploded, and when a voiceless man made himself heard in the most destructive of ways. That cycle remains all too recognizable.