The Ballad of Robert Charles: Searching for the New Orleans Riot of 1900
Author: K. Stephen Prince
Publisher University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 264 pages
Reviewer: Thomas Aiello ǀ November 2021
In 1976, William Ivy Hair introduced us to Robert Charles in his Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900, and the book became both an important contribution to the broader historiography of post-Reconstruction and early twentieth-century race riots, and a staple of the history of race in Louisiana. More than forty years later, K. Stephen Prince has built on Hair’s original account with his new book, The Ballad of Robert Charles: Searching for the New Orleans Riot of 1900. Hair’s book was about the life and death of Charles, however that might be known with only the few sources that survive. But Prince’s effort is more ambitious, a study of the act of knowing itself, a study of the temporal and spatial geography of racial apartheid in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and the role that memory plays in both the maintenance of white supremacy and the fight against it.
The story of Charles and the race riot sparked by his actions is no less harrowing for its modern familiarity. Charles, a working-class Black resident of New Orleans originally from Mississippi, was sitting on a stoop with a friend when he was accosted by white policemen in July 1900. When the confrontation escalated to the use of guns, both Charles and a policeman were wounded, whence Charles quickly ran to his residence. When the police came looking for him, he killed two of them before again running away. For three days, he was nowhere to be found, but white New Orleans, inflamed by the killing of white officers, ran amuck in the city, killing several black bystanders and wounding many others. Eventually Charles was traced to a local residence, where soon a mob descended. They fired relentlessly into the building, and Charles fired back, killing two more victims and wounding several others. Frustrated by their lack of success, members of the mob set fire to the building to draw Charles out, where he was finally gunned down and his body mutilated by the ravenous crowd, before it was taken to the local morgue.
Prince’s account does not challenge the basic facts of this case. Instead, he uses it to find the interstitial spaces between the commonly understood acts of violence, describing the lived reality of racialized policing in New Orleans, the topography of a city controlled by powerful whites with a vested interest in pretending its working-class Black population didn’t exist, and the intersections of race and class that undergirded both the city’s operation and its desire to be a capitalist mecca.
Law enforcement in the city served as both a racial cudgel and a supplier of manual labor for a city constantly in need of workers. Vagrancy laws and other measures gave the police carte blanche to arrest whomever they saw fit, and an urban, institutionalized version of convict lease gave the city free labor to work on infrastructure projects that were sorely underfunded. The police department was underfunded, as well, with an inadequate number of officers working long hours for little pay; thus only exacerbating frustrations that often found outlets in the vulnerable Black population of the city.
Those outlets were easy targets because of the racial geography of the city itself, with working-class Black citizens shunted to the back-of-town, an inland section of the city away from the Mississippi River and New Orleans’s more celebrated tourist districts populated by rural migrants who had come to the city for manual labor jobs and the pseudo-security of a consistent paycheck. While the area was, at least in some measure, racially integrated, Prince does a masterful job of calculating the racial makeup of individual blocks in the area where Charles lived, and where his demise ultimately occurred. He demonstrates that while integration did exist in those neighborhoods, it was in many ways pyrrhic, giving lie to a Black population increasingly isolated from white neighbors. That isolation, then, only increased the population’s vulnerability to racialized policing and their consequent resentment of that official abuse. It was an isolation that only abetted white New Orleans’s convenient ignorance of a group of people vital to the city, but inconvenient to its image and sense of self.
There was, of course, a Black population with more clout in New Orleans than those living in Charles’s back-of-town neighborhoods — one in many ways immune from its more overtly brutal policing tactics. That group, however, was situated in the city’s uptown and downtown areas abutting the Mississippi River. Theirs was a life dogged by racial indignities as well, but they came without vagrancy policing and overt acts of official violence endemic to the working-class inland neighborhoods that encompassed the lived geography of Robert Charles.
Those living in the more storied wards of New Orleans near the river appear infrequently in Prince’s account. They were the parts of town that city boosters hoped to emphasize in an effort to revitalize a region that had fallen on hard times in the lean decades at the end of the nineteenth century. One of the ways back to prominence, many believed, was through aggressive tourism marketing that celebrated a New Orleans exceptionalism built on its French and Spanish heritage, its willing mélange of races and languages, and its emphasis on leisure above all else.
But Prince’s New Orleans isn’t particularly exceptional at all. When the city created by such intentional salesmanship is stripped away, when the areas of popular intrigue and wealth that spent so much effort avoiding their migrant working class fade from a narrative that necessarily doesn’t include them, New Orleans looks far more like Richmond, Savannah, Atlanta, Mobile, and other southern urban centers than its brochures would have us believe. Robert Charles inhabited a city filled with rural migrants hoping to escape the indignities of farm tenancy and agricultural racial abuse by finding a place in a growing urban economy. Those migrants had to traverse a landscape defined by intractable racial lines made all the more difficult to navigate because of the city’s outsized self-congratulatory egalitarian reputation that it sold not only to potential tourists but also to its own citizens. That propaganda created blinders for many powerful white citizens that did not allow them to see the racial problems in their midst. Or, perhaps, those blinders helped white citizens maintain a studied, intentional ignorance of the racial problems in their midst.
This was a forgetting made possible by the spatial geography of New Orleans’s back-of-town, but there was also a temporal racial geography at work. The image the city cultivated suffered greatly from the national publicity provided by the 1900 race riot, and so another studied, intentional ignorance moved through time in the decades following the tragedy — a forgetting that made both the crimes of Robert Charles and the race riot it sparked largely disappear from white historical memory. No one was held to account for any of the murders, as all of the charges brought in their wake were ultimately dropped. Scholars of criminal law and criminal justice will find particularly prescient the attempts of the New Orleans district attorney to prosecute both black and white defendants in the wake of the violence, only to give up after early acquittals, entering nolle prosequi notices for the remaining cases.
Black historical memory, however, would cut against the forgetting created by white willful ignorance and failed prosecutions in order to maintain the story in various forms; the incident growing in its retelling like so many fishing tales from the nearby Mississippi River. Charles was, to many Black New Orleanians, a hero. In such interpretations, this disgruntled laborer wasn’t a mass murderer; he was a symbol of the power of armed self-defense against white oppression and police brutality.
In one of the book’s most captivating chapters, Prince frames the actions of Robert Charles in a variety of ways to probe those interstitial spaces among the established facts of the case. Among them is the culture of Black southern gun ownership and the belief in armed self-defense as a necessity in a period rife with thousands of lynchings and other forms of racial violence.
Another of those vital frames is the movement for Black nationalism and emigration to Liberia. At the time of Charles’s confrontation with the New Orleans police, he was making a living selling the emigrationist literature of Henry McNeal Turner. While Liberia was a distant dream for most in the poorest wards of New Orleans, Charles and those who lived in those neighborhoods with him could cling to the hope of escape and to the worldview that situated their plight within a global context of white supremacy. Because they understood in a way that those reading tourist brochures never could, that New Orleans was, despite its French and Spanish heritage and its interracial reputation, a decidedly southern city steeped in the Jim Crow tyranny that plagued the entire region.
Prince’s New Orleans, then, is unique precisely because of its similarity to other southern urban centers. It is a New Orleans often unseen in accounts that emphasize the city’s difference, its voodoo and food and architecture, a faltering metropolis defined by its police-enforced racial hegemony that maintained black poverty and difference and created the environment in which riots like that of July 1900 could take place.
The Ballad of Robert Charles is a book that uses one horrifying incident to think deeply about the nature and limits of historical knowledge. It is innovative in its sourcing and in its thinking about sourcing. It takes a story that you think you already know and contextualizes it in a variety of new ways. For those who have long admired Carnival of Fury, be assured that this volume is not a recapitulation of its narrative, nor is it a supplement to it. The Ballad of Robert Charles is something new; it forces its reader to reexamine the role of geography, memory, and silence in the project of writing the histories of populations muted by poverty and racism. And for that this work is not only interesting. It is vital.
Thomas Aiello is a Professor of History and African American Studies at Valdosta State University