Robert Charles riots
|Robert Charles riots|
Sketch of the scene at Robert Charles' residence on the 2000 block of Fourth Street.
|Date||July 23 – July 28, 1900|
|Location||New Orleans, Louisiana, United States|
|Caused by||Reaction to murder of policemen|
|Methods||Rioting, looting, assault, arson, property damage, firefights, murder|
The Robert Charles riots of July 24-27, 1900 in New Orleans, Louisiana were sparked after African American laborer Robert Charles fatally shot a white police officer and escaped arrest. A large manhunt for him ensued, and a white mob started rioting, attacking blacks throughout the city. 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. A total of 28 people were killed in the riots, including Charles, shot by a special police volunteer. Other white men in the mob shot hundreds of bullets into his body and beat him beyond recognition. More than 50 people were wounded in the riots, including at least 11 who had to be hospitalized. Blacks made up most of the fatalities and casualties.
Robert Charles (b. circa 1865) had come to New Orleans from Mississippi. He was a self-educated activist for civil rights. He believed in self-defense for the African-American community and encouraged African Americans to move to Liberia to escape racial discrimination.
Louisiana was a slave society before the American Civil War, with hundreds of enslaved people working on each of numerous large cotton and sugar cane plantations, and many others in smaller groups, including in port cities such as New Orleans. Some also worked on the steamboats that traveled the rivers. At the start of the 20th century, the population of New Orleans was recorded in 1900 at 730,000 'white' and 650,000 'negro' by the Twelfth Census of the United States. Among the latter were many mixed-race people, whose ancestors had formerly had a distinct status as free people of color before the Civil War, particularly during the years of French and Spanish control.
The white-dominated legislature, primarily Democrats, had passed a new state constitution with provisions that disenfranchised most African Americans by making voter registration more difficult, through poll taxes, literacy tests and similar measures. After that, the Democratic-dominated legislature passed eight Jim Crow laws by 1900. These included a law establishing racial segregation for public facilities, including interstate railroad cars, which were nominally under federal law. Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) was a Louisiana test case of segregation on interstate railroad cars, which was appealed to the US Supreme Court. Opponents argued that federal laws and constitutional rights should apply on interstate transportation, but the Court ruled the state could establish "separate but equal" facilities. In practice, however, the "separate" facilities were seldom equal.
These laws aggravated racial relations. Historian Hair has written, "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."
New Orleans newspapers contributed to racial tensions, as they were "becoming more stridently racist in their editorial columns and treatment of the news." 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, said 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."
Racial segregation in New Orleans
In southern Louisiana, African Americans had been allowed much more freedom than in other areas, largely owing to the racial demographics in New Orleans particularly and its history. During the colonial period, New Orleans had developed three racial groups, as was typical of other French and Latin colonies: white, free persons of color (mixed race or gens de couleur libre), and enslaved black people. Robert Charles was classified as mixed-race (mulatto in the terms of the time) and his ancestors may have been free. In colonial French society, free people of color had more rights and often gained education, property and more skilled jobs and professions. After the United States takeover in the Louisiana Purchase, and particularly after Reconstruction, the increasingly numerous whites of United States Protestant culture worked to impose the Southern binary system of classifying everyone as black or white. Mixed-race people still formed a class elite in New Orleans.
Following Mississippi, the Louisiana legislature, dominated by white Democrats, passed a new constitution at the end of the nineteenth century with provisions that made voter registration more difficult, effectively disenfranchising most blacks, including mulattoes. The Democratic-dominated legislature also passed Jim Crow laws imposing racial segregation in public facilities. 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.
Original altercation and pursuit
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 reports of “two suspicious looking negroes” sitting on a porch in a predominantly white neighborhood. They found Robert 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 stood up, which the police took as an aggressive move. Mora grabbed him and the two struggled. Mora hit Charles with his billet club. 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, leaving a trail of blood. Pierce, also armed, was covered by a police officer when Charles ran.
Charles had returned to his residence by early the next morning, when police were trying to find him. 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 tried to apprehend Charles, he fired upon them with a .38-caliber Winchester rifle, fatally hitting Day in the heart. Charles shot another policeman in the head. The remaining policemen took refuge in a nearby room and Charles escaped. The police started a manhunt.
Manhunt and riot
On July 24 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. On July 25, 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, blamed the black community for Charles' crimes and calling for action.
In the following days, several riots occurred as mobs of armed whites roamed the streets. On the night of the 25th they killed three blacks and wounded six more so severely they had to be hospitalized. Five whites were also hospitalized, and more than 50 people suffered lesser injuries. 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 learned that Charles was there. Throughout the day, the police fired on the house, where Charles 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 fatally; four were policemen.
The police decided to burn down the building to flush out Charles. As he tried to escape, he was shot by Charles A. Noiret, a medical student and member of the special police (a militia police group of volunteer citizens). The policemen continued to shoot Charles. When they dragged his body outside, a mob of bystanders beat his body.
Mobs in New Orleans continued to rampage against blacks after learning that Charles had been killed. Police had difficulty taking his body to the morgue as angry white mobs tried to mutilate his corpse. The mob killed several African Americans and burned down the Thomy Lafon schoolhouse, known as "the best Negro schoolhouse in Louisiana." Fred Clark, who had told police where Charles had taken refuge, was assassinated several days later by Lewis Forstall, a supporter of Charles. The rioting finally ended after New Orleans Mayor Paul Capdeville deputized 1,500 special police and gained assistance from the state militia.
The events in New Orleans had ramifications beyond the state. Lillian Jewett, a young white member of the Anti-Lynching League, was fundraising at a Boston, Massachusetts meeting hours after Charles' death to raise money for those who had been injured. The Louisiana press represented this meeting, as the Times Picayune put it, "Insane Ravings at a Boston Meeting". A group of wealthy young white men from New Orleans had formed the Green Turtles the previous year. This group required an "oath of allegiance to white supremacy and the Democratic Party." This group's subsequent threats on Jewett's life prevented her traveling any farther South than Richmond, Virginia.
Whites intensified and increased the reach of racial segregation after the Robert Charles riots. In 1908 the legislature passed a miscegenation law, prohibiting interracial marriage or domestic partnerships. This was part of what was considered a progressive movement, influenced also by eugenics; many states passed miscegenation laws in those years. The city established racial segregation in jails in 1920. The Catholic Church established a segregated parish in downtown New Orleans, the Congregation of Corpus Christi. Racial violence and hate crimes increased in frequency.
Lynchings were still high at the turn of the century, as southern states disfranchised blacks and imposed legal segregation. The agricultural economy was not doing well, adding to economic and social tensions.
- "1900: One of the bloodiest episodes of the Jim Crow era in New Orleans". The Times-Picayune. New Orleans, La. 2011-10-04.
- "Robert Charles Riots (1900)", Black Past
- Twelfth Census of the United States, taken in the Year 1900. Volume I. Part I p. 725
- [http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/resources/lessonplans/hs_es_jim_crow_laws.htm "Jim Crow Laws", Jim Crow History website
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 140–141
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 91
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 119–121
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 125–126
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 144–145
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 148–149
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 153
- Hair – Carnival of Fury pp. 170–171
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 175–177
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 185
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 193–195
- William R. Merriam. "Twelfth Census of the United States" (1900) Pp. 725
- William Ivy Hair. Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 Louisiana State University Press (1976) ISBN 0-8071-0178-8
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death. (1900) Project Gutenberg.
- Michael McGerr. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America (2003) Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518365-8
- Susan Faulck. "Jim Crow Legislative Overview". The History of Jim Crow.
- Robert P. Robertson. The Tragedy of Robert Charles (2009), Booksurge ISBN 978-1-4392-4488-3
- Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), partial preview online