• Cierra Chenier

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

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.” 

Lenard Pierce, roommate of Robert Charles

2023 Fourth Street, former home of Robert Charles and Lenard Pierce

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. 

2815 Dryades Street, location of the July 23, 1900 incident

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