Robert Charles riots
The Robert Charles riots of 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 conflict, including Charles, shot by a special police volunteer and his body was pumped with hundreds of bullets and beaten beyond recognition. More than 50 people were wounded in the riots, including at least 11 that had to be hospitalized.
Robert Charles (b. circa 1865) came 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. At the start of the 20th century. Its population was recorded in 1900 at 730,000 'white' and 650,000 'negro' by the Twelfth Census of the United States.
Democrats had passed a new constitution with provisions that disenfranchised most African Americans through making voter registration more difficult. 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. 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 were allowed much more freedom, largely owing to the racial demographics in New Orleans particularly. During the colonial period, New Orleans had developed three racial groups: 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). 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, its migrants tended to try 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, Louisiana passed a new constitution with provisions that made voter registration more difficult, effectively disenfranchising most blacks, including mulattoes. The Democratic-dominated legislature 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 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 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 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 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." w 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 outside of the state. Lillian Jewett, a young white Bostonian, started the Anti-Lynching League in reaction to Charles' death. Some members of the group called for revenge. In turn, a group of whites from New Orleans formed the Green Turtles and threatened Jewett's life.
The racial segregation only intensified and grew after the Robert Charles riots. In 1908 the legislature passed a miscegenation law, prohibiting interracial marriage or domestic partnerships. Racial segregation was established 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.
New Orleans jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton recounted the 1906 riot in his 1938 oral history for the Library of Congress.
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.
- "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 p. 170–171
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 175–177
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 185
- Hair – Carnival of Fury p. 193–194
- 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
- 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