Charles was involved in the Liberian emigration movement.
In his thirties in 1900, Charles was a quiet, intense man who worked at odd jobs. He supported black emigration to Africa as a response to white terrorism in the South. He read a lot and collected weapons, but broke no laws.
On Monday, July 24, 1900, Charles sat on a front porch in New Orleans talking quietly with a friend, while waiting for another to return. Close to midnight, three police officers arrived to interrogate and then (according to the wounded officer's own statement) attempted to arrest them when Charles stood up. In the ensuing altercation, Charles drew his gun and wounded one of the officers. Wounded himself, he fled to his own place.
Grabbing a rifle for self-defense, Charles moved from one hiding place to another. Along his trail he left five dead police officers and a dozen wounded ones. A mob of over one thousand joined the police in the manhunt, frequently firing indiscriminately into the black community, taking at least eight innocent lives and brutally beating and arresting many more. Finally surrounded, Charles was burned out of his hiding place and immediately riddled with bullets. As was customary, the mob mutilated the body. 
Journalist Ida Wells-Barnett investigated the incident as part of her study of lynchings; she wrote: "The white people of this country may charge that he was a desperado, but to the people of his own race Robert Charles will always be regarded as the 'Hero of New Orleans.'"
- Wells, Ida B. (1900). Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death.
- John Newsinger (February 2015). "The hero of New Orleans". Socialist Review (399). Retrieved 2016-11-11.
- Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death. by Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1900).
- Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900. By William Ivy Hair. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press,1976.
- America and its People, Volume 2 From 1865 - 1988. Page 599 "Rise Brothers!": The Black Response to Jim Crow; by James Kirby Martin, Randy Roberts, Steven Mintz, Linda O. McMurry, James H. Jones, Publisher : Scott, Foresmans and Company, ISBN 0-673-18316-5
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