Robert Charles Riots

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The Robert Charles Riots of 1900 were sparked after African American laborer Robert Charles shot a white police officer which led to a manhunt. Twenty-eight people were killed in the conflict, including Charles. Many more people were killed and wounded in the riots. The manhunt for Charles began after an altercation involving Charles, his roommate, and several New Orleans police officers on Monday, July 23, 1900, and ended when Charles was killed on Friday, July 27.

Robert Charles came to New Orleans from Mississippi and was a self-educated, articulate activist. He believed in self-defense for the African-American community and encouraged African-Americans in the United States to move to Liberia to escape racial discrimination [1]

Front page of the New Orleans "Daily Picayune" after the killing of Charles

Civil Unrest[edit]

Louisiana was a racially diverse state around the start of the 20th century. Its population was listed at 730,000 'white' and 650,000 'negro' by the Twelfth Census of the United States.[2] Louisiana law attempted to keep these two populations separate at the end of the 19th century. Plessy vs. Ferguson was originally a Louisiana case before going to the Supreme Court, and the state of Louisiana had passed eight Jim Crow laws by 1900.[3] The effect of segregation laws was clear in the city of New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century: "Signs of increasing animosity between the races were to be seen almost daily in New Orleans during June and July 1900. Both the police and press received an unprecedented number of complaints."[4]

Racial tensions were increased by the racist undertones of New Orleans newspapers, which were "becoming more stridently racist in their editorial columns and treatment of the news."[4] The confrontational journalistic practices of Henry J. Hearsay and the States newspaper caused racial rifts in New Orleans. Hearsay, a former Major in the Confederate Army, stated in one article that "if [negroes] listen to the screeds of agitators in the North...the result will be a race war, and race war means extermination...Then the negro problem of Louisiana at least will be solved–and that by extermination."[5]

Racial Segregation in New Orleans[edit]

In southern Louisiana, African Americans were allowed much more freedom, largely owing to the racial demographics in New Orleans particularly. During the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, New Orleans could be divided into three racial groups: white, free people of color, and enslaved. Robert Charles was classified into the "free people of color" racial group. This particular racial group usually consisted of people who had a mixed racial heritage and had a measurable amount of freedom that was uncommon in most every other state during this time.[6]

Louisiana was one of the first states to pass laws officially stripping blacks of the right to register to vote. Following this event, the major segregation by race in Louisiana began. Public facilities including restaurants, hotels, night clubs, amusement parks, schools, playgrounds, and cementers were strictly segregated. By the 1900s the line separating whites and blacks had become a part of the New Orleans culture, including the segregation by color on New Orleans' streetcars.[6]

Original Altercation and Pursuit[edit]

At approximately 11 p.m. on July 23, 1900, three white police officers, Sergeant Jules C. Aucion, August T. Mora, and Joseph D. Cantrelle, investigated “two suspicious looking negroes” sitting on a porch on the 2800 block of Dryades Street in a predominantly white neighborhood. They arrived to find Charles and his roommate, 19-year-old Leonard Pierce, at the scene. The policemen questioned the two men, demanding to know what they "were doing and how long they had been there." One of the two men replied that they were "waiting for a friend." Charles then stood up, which the police believed to be an aggressive move. Mora grabbed him and the two struggled. Mora hit Charles with his billet. Mora and Charles pulled guns and exchanged shots. Reports vary on who drew first; both men received non-lethal gunshot wounds to the legs. Charles fled the scene to his residence where he was currently living, leaving a trail of blood.[7] Pierce, also armed, was left at the gunpoint of a police officer when Charles ran.

Charles returned to his residence early the next morning while the police attempted to track him down. Discovering where the man lived by interrogating Pierce, Captain Day and a patrol wagon approached Charles's residence on the 2000 block of Fourth Street at approximately 3 a.m. on the morning of July 24, 1900. When the police attempted to apprehend Charles, he fired upon them with a .38-caliber Winchester rifle, hitting Day with a shot to the heart. Charles shouted, "I will give you all some," and shot another policeman in the head. The remaining policemen took refuge in a nearby room while Charles escaped. Upon the policemen’s arrival at his house, Charles fired his rifle in their direction, killing two officers, including the chief, Captain Day. While the rest of the officers sought cover, Charles fled the scene, leading to a police manhunt.[8]

Manhunt and Riot[edit]

July 24 was the first day that showed signs of rioting. A crowd of whites gathered on Fourth Street where the policemen were killed. There were shouts for lynching Charles, but the crowds dispersed when they were falsely told Charles had been located and jailed.[9] On the 25th, Acting Mayor Mehle (Mayor Paul Capdevielle was out of town) announced a $250 reward for the arrest of Charles while issuing a proclamation urging peace. New Orleans papers, particularly the Times-Democrat, helped exacerbate the situation, blaming the black community for Charles's crimes and calling for action.[10]

In the following days, several riots occurred as mobs of armed whites roamed the streets. The night of the 25th caused the deaths of three blacks and the hospitalization of six more, plus five whites, and the injury of more than 50 people.[11] Charles had taken refuge at 1208 Saratoga Street, where he remained safe from the police until Friday, July 27. The house was quickly surrounded by police after they were informed of Charles's location. Throughout the day, men from outside the house fired upon Charles, who sporadically returned the fire. By the end of the day, Charles had shot a total of 27 white people in the course of the week, seven lethally; four of the victims were policemen.[12] At this point, the police decided to burn down the building in which Charles was holed up. When attempting to escape the smoke-filled building, Charles was shot by Charles A. Noiret, a medical student and member of the special police (a police group of volunteer citizens). The policemen present continued to shoot Charles, then dragged him outside where a mob of bystanders beat Charles's body.[12]

Aftermath[edit]

Mobs in New Orleans still rampaged after the killing. Police had difficulty getting the body to the morgue due to angry white mobs attempting to damage the corpse. Several innocent African-American people were killed and the Thomy Lafon schoolhouse, "the best Negro schoolhouse in Louisiana," was burned down.[13] The informant who told police the whereabouts of Charles, Fred Clark, was shot and killed several days later by an admirer of Charles, Lewis Forstall.[14] The rioting ended when New Orleans Mayor Paul Capdeville deputized 1,500 special police and asked for assistance from the state militia.[15]

The events in New Orleans also had an effect outside of the state. A young white Bostonian, Lillian Jewett, started the Anti-Lynching League in reaction to Charles's death. Some members of the group wanted retribution for the killing and called for revenge. In turn, a group of white New Orleanians formed the Green Turtles, who threatened Jewett's life.[16]

The racial segregation only intensified and grew after the Robert Charles riots. In 1908 state law prohibited cohabitation in marriage or domestic partnerships between whites and blacks. Racial segregation in jails was required in 1920 throughout the state of Louisiana. The Catholic church established a segregated parish in downtown New Orleans, the Congregation of Corpus Christi. Along with the segregation growing after these riots, racial violence and hate crimes intensified as well.

Lynchings increased dramatically between 1900-1931. The number of African Americans who were lynched during this time period alone, reached the thousands.[citation needed]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/robert-charles-riots-1900.
  2. ^ Twelfth Census of the United States, taken in the Year 1900. Volume I. Part I p. 725
  3. ^ http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/resources/lessonplans/hs_es_jim_crow_laws.htm [1]
  4. ^ a b Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 140-141
  5. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 91
  6. ^ a b http://www.knowla.org/entry.php?rec=735
  7. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 119-121
  8. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 125-126
  9. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 144-145
  10. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 148-149
  11. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 153
  12. ^ a b Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 170-171
  13. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 175-177
  14. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 185
  15. ^ http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/robert-charles-riots-1900
  16. ^ Hair - Carnival of Fury p. 193-194

References[edit]