Robert Charles was born in Copiah County, Mississippi, in 1865 or 1866. His precise date of birth is unknown, though it is evident that he was born to sharecropper parents who farmed in the lowlands of Bayou Pierre, the same site where they had been enslaved. Collectively, his family embodies all of the “four migrations” that have, in the telling of historian Ira Berlin, shaped “African America” (Berlin 8 ). Indeed, in the four-day manhunt that followed his chance encounter with Patrolman August T. Mora, Charles killed 7 people and wounded 20 more before being shot and mutilated in a spectacle of mob violence.
Despite pathologizing accounts of his “bad” nature, Charles was not simply a troublemaker but a political agent informed by migration movements and emergent southern Populism. Responding to the racialist rhetoric of the 1896 election—during which rural, plantation-dominated Democratic counties stole the election from the Populist-Republican ticket that had won the majority of votes—he seems to have joined the International Migration Society in hopes of shifting beleaguered African American populations to Liberia. In the days before his shooting spree, he might have told William Butts, a fellow levee worker, that “it was the duty of every Negro to buy a rifle and keep it ready against the time they might be called upon to act in unison” in the event of a lynching like that of Sam Hose, murdered outside of Atlanta 15 months earlier by a mob of thousands (Hair 108 ). Upon Charles's death—which included the pro forma postlynching ransacking of his person and possessions—a fiery speech by Dennis Sholars, former Populist candidate for the Louisiana lieutenant governorship, was found in his pocket. Conservative Louisiana media routinely portrayed Sholars as a radical who had proposed to “exterminate” the state's Democratic Party and Charles as a lunatic bent on instigating a race war but influenced more by cocaine than politics (“Local News Item” 2 ). Ida B. Wells, who conducted an investigation of the Charles case, asked that he be remembered as a “student who faithfully investigated all the phases of oppression from which his race has suffered” (Wells 198 ).
The immediate aftermath in New Orleans allowed for no nuance in representations of Charles. On the night he shot Mora, Charles caught a bullet in the leg, went home to his cottage to clean his wound, and shot two more policemen who came to his house to arrest him. The next morning, bloodhounds in the service of the New Orleans Police Department began the search but found that Charles had baited them by leaving his clothes in a neighbor's shed. Interrogations of friends and even his girlfriend Virginia Banks painted a picture of a violent man: “a low Negro and a free lover” with many mistresses (“Two Police Victims of an Assassin's Weapon” 1 ).
In the days between the initiating incident and his death, Robert Charles sought shelter in New Orleans's Central City, a neighborhood that was and remains a crossroads of the black community. White populations within the city, meanwhile, exploded with rage. Police arrested African Americans rumored to approve of Charles's actions. A white man who noted that Charles acted in his own defense and deserved a fair trial was nearly lynched and ultimately arrested for being too “broad-minded on racial matters” (Hair 143 ). A mob gathered at Lee Circle—a roundabout surveyed from above by a statue of Robert E. Lee—threatening to overtake the prison and lynch the alleged conspirators. At the urging of police officers, the mob instead spent its energy in Storyville, New Orleans's red-light district, where “houses that specialized in black or mixed-blood prostitutes were shut and unlighted” in fear of racial violence (Hair 152 ). A school for children of color was burned, and an elderly man was shot in the French Market, a locus of tourist traffic in the Vieux Carre. Suburban parishes became zones of distress because of rampaging mobs.
On July 27, a Central City man named Fred Clark informed the police of Charles's whereabouts. The police came to find him, and a mob formed. Wielding the Winchester that shot Mora and his own homemade bullets, Charles fired 50 shots and made contact 24 times. One thousand guns were aimed on Charles; 500 bullet holes were subsequently found in the house that provided him with shelter. It would take the courts almost a year to adjudicate the question of whose gun provided the mortal wound and, thus, disburse the bounty levied by the city government. His body was horribly mutilated, and his house in Uptown New Orleans was ransacked; his voluminous essays, handwritten in composition books, were destroyed, thereby silencing his insurrectionary voice. Within days, The Daily Picayune would remark on New Orleans's restored tranquility, noting that “the city's troubles [were] seemingly buried [with] Charles’ disfigured carcass” (“New Orleans Is Peaceful Once Again” 1 ).
See also: African Americans and Populism ; Pop Music ; South, Populism in the ; Wells, Ida B. (1862–1931)
Banner Democrat. “Local News Item.” April 6, 1901, p. 2.
Berlin, Ira. The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
Daily Picayune. “New Orleans Is Peaceful Once Again.” July 30, 1900, p. 1.
Daily Picayune. “Two Police Victims Of An Assassin's Weapon.” July 25, 1900, p. 1.
Daily Picayune. “Vox Populi: Correspondence Which Speaks for Itself.” July 29, 1900, p. 9.
Gussow, Adam. “‘Shoot Myself a Cop’: Mamie Smith's ‘Crazy Blues’ as Social Text.” Callaloo 25 (1): 8–44.
Hair, William Ivy. Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
Morton, Jelly Roll. The Complete Library of Congress Recordings. 2005. MP3.
Wells, Ida B. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900. Edited by Jacqueline Jones Royster. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.