Robert Charles & the 1900 Race Riots
One summer day in New Orleans 1900 sparked a week of murder, mayhem, manhunt, and mutilation.
By 1900, the city’s blueprint had expanded far beyond the French Quarter, slavery had only been abolished for thirty-five years, Jim Crow segregation was at its peak, and lynchings were a regular occurrence in the South. One of these brutal lynchings took place in Georgia 1899. Sam Hose was a Black man murdered by a lynch mob after killing his white employer out of self defense. The mob tortured his body, burned him alive, and sold his remains as “souvenirs.” This angered and concerned Black communities across the South, but struck a final nerve in one Black New Orleans man in particular.
Robert Charles was born in Mississippi to previously enslaved parents. At age 28, he joined the thousands of Black people that came to New Orleans from Mississippi in search of paying manual labor jobs. He was described as “well educated and well dressed,” known to be a reliable worker and an honest man by his peers and former employers. For years, Charles was a paid member of a society promoting the migration of Black people “back to the homeland,” to the African country of Liberia. An empty lot is all that remains of where Charles and a young roommate named Lenard Pierce lived Uptown at 2023 Fourth Street. According to Pierce, Charles often complained about the mistreatment of Black people during this heightened racial climate and “talked about the right of self-defense, but never told me to go against the white people.”
Murder & Mayhem Way, Way Uptown
It was said that Robert Charles was enraged at the lynching of Sam Hose and the cruelty surrounding it. A year later on July 23, 1900, Charles had plans that summer day to go “joce his ole lady” Virginia Banks, who lived down the street with a white family at 2815 Dryades Street. Around 11p.m., Charles and Pierce sat on the steps of the home waiting for Virginia to come outside. Since being Black and minding your business is essentially a crime, a police report was made insinuating that the “two suspicious-looking Negroes” were up to no good. The situation quickly escalated when the white officers demanded to know what they were doing and why they were there. One of the officers stated that “the larger of the two Negroes” stood up, referring to Charles. Charles pulled away when the officer tried to grab him, resulting in a struggle and the officer drawing his gun. In response, Charles pulled his weapon and gunfire ensued between the two, leaving both with gunshot wounds. Charles fled the scene towards Sixth Street, still bleeding.
By 1a.m., police traced Charles’ bloodstains back to his Fourth Street home. When they surrounded the building and ordered him out, he fired repeatedly, killing two officers. By the time Charles escaped, the entire NOPD had arrived at the scene.
Manhunt for Robert Charles
The date is now July 24, 1900, and a city-wide manhunt is in place for Robert Charles with racial hostility at an all time high. White New Orleanians came out in the masses to not only aid the police in searching for Charles, but to also terrorize every Black person in sight just off the strength. The New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 had begun.
Lee’s Circle at St. Charles Avenue was the famed monument of racist and slave owner Robert E. Lee, who actually once stated, “The painful discipline they [Black people] are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.” This was ironically the meeting site of the armed, white mobs during the riots. They decided that they must avenge the deaths of the police officers and that all of Black New Orleans was hiding Robert Charles. For that, they wanted to remove Lenard Pierce from the Orleans Parish Jail and lynch him after assaulting Black people along their path. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t access Pierce so they paraded by the thousands instead. Within days, the mob shot and beat Black streetcar passengers, targeted Black saloons in Storyville, and killed an elderly Black man that was on his way to work at the French Market.
A Public Lynching
By July 27, 1900, police received word that Robert Charles was hiding in the home of a Black family at 1208 South Saratoga Street. The police and the mobs surrounded the home and Charles returned gunfire with the group for hours. Eventually, a fire was set to the building to get Charles to escape and when he tried to make an exit, he was shot by a member of the special police force. Robert Charles was killed while clutching for his rifle. In the week's total, Charles had wounded or killed 27 white people.
The officers dragged his body outside. The crowd was allowed to fire hundreds of additional bullets into the body and stomp it as many times as they pleased. At this point, the body of Robert Charles was completely mutilated, nearly decapitated, and brought to the city morgue where the mob broke the glass STILL tweaking for further vengeance. Hundreds of white locals visited the morgue to view Charles’ body, which had over thirty bullets in his torso alone.
Although Charles had been caught and killed, the mobs did not end. In celebration of their “victory” and with leftover anger from the week’s incidents, they continued to retaliate against Black New Orleanians. They threatened to burn down Straight University (later became Dillard University), a historically Black college/university. Instead, they went to the first Thomy Lafon school located between Harmony and Seventh Streets. What was once known as the “best Negro schoolhouse in Louisiana” was burned to the ground at midnight. The school board halted public education for Black students past the fifth grade in response. Consequently, Black students did not have access to public education until 1917 with the opening of McDonogh 35 High School.
Over 60 Black people were injured or killed in the riots. Racial terror further intensified in the years following Robert Charles and the race riots, from continued lynchings to stricter segregation laws.
The body of Robert Charles was buried at Holt Cemetery, known as the burial site for the city’s Black and poorer residents. Those buried here did not receive the luxury of New Orleans’ historic above-ground grave and this cemetery is visibly less elaborate than the others. There was no funeral held for Robert Charles, nor was there a grave marker to indicate where he was buried. Essentially just thrown in the dirt and left to rot, legend has it that some thought even that was too decent of a homegoing, so his body was unearthed and burned.
Robert Charles, Criminal or Hero?
Depending on who you're talking to, Robert Charles was evil, a criminal. To others, he was deemed "the hero of New Orleans." He might've been either, neither, or both. But what he was for sure, was a human being. That final day in 1900 did not grant him the decency as one.
Looking at Charles' actions alone, it's important to recognize that random acts of violence, no matter who against, can't be applauded or encouraged as solutions. It's also important to recognize that extreme resistance to oppression can't be examined by actions alone. Did the brutal lynching of Sam Hose weigh on Charles' mind when approached by the officers that day? Did the oppressive conditions of Jim Crow South compel his resistance? Did his allegiance to Blackness override his fear of the obvious consequence for his actions? Was his natural instinct that of a killer? Or did the conditions of a post-slavery society make him into one?
July 23, 1900 was less about Charles pulling his gun in response to the one pulled on him. It was more about the fact that a Black man had the audacity to defy the conditions and authority that he did. With the racial terror that broke out during that week, it was clear that Robert Charles unfortunately gave many "the reason" that they had long been waiting for, and many people died as a result.
There is something important to be evaluated in terms of the white psyche that surrounded this incident. How deep does hatred have to run to have left your homes and walked across the city of New Orleans to aid law enforcement in locating a suspect to a crime that had nothing to do with you? How deep does hatred have to run to where even the media joined in on the demonization of the Black community as "Negro criminals"? How deep does hatred have to run to where burning down Black homes, institutions and beating, killing random Black people was seen as some type of "victory"? How deep does hatred have to run to have gotten gratification out of watching (and helping) a man get riddled with bullets? How deep does hatred have to run to, even after death, call for further mutilation of a person's body?
Pretty deep. It was never just about Robert Charles. The reality is that throughout history, every Robert Charles that either challenged or defied the conditions of Black people all paid the ultimate price, and I believe that he knew that he was a dead man from the first moment of interaction with the officers.
Whether to you he is a monster or a martyr, he was for sure a man, a Black man. A human being, who for some reason worth examining, had enough that day in 1900 that resulted in one of the bloodiest weeks in our city's history. For that, the story of Robert Charles and the conditions that created him are worthy of being told.