Reckoning with our past means commemorating violent histories

Reblogged with permission from Washington Post; Blog Post by K. Stephen Prince, author of The Ballad of Robert Charles: Searching For The New Orleans Riot

On a gray afternoon in December, a small group gathered in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. They came together to dedicate a historical marker to the events of late July 1900, when a confrontation between a Black man named Robert Charles and members of the New Orleans Police Department sparked a week of horrific racial violence.

In a city that is highly conscious of its own history, the marker represents the first official, public commemoration of this event. What happened in New Orleans in 1900 offers a powerful reminder of the centrality of violence to the history of race relations in the United States. What makes the story distinctive, however, is the figure of Charles, an ordinary man who waged a war on white supremacy and Jim Crow.

On July 23, 1900, Charles was relaxing on a stoop with a friend when three members of the New Orleans Police Department approached. The officers probably intended to arrest the two men as vagrants or “dangerous and suspicious characters,” a common fate for Black people found occupying the public spaces of segregated New Orleans. The confrontation grew heated. One of the officers drew a pistol, as did Charles. In the ensuing firefight, both men were wounded, and Charles disappeared into the night. When the police located him at his apartment several hours later, Charles opened fire, killing two officers. In the confusion, he escaped once more, knowing his capture would be a death sentence. He would not be seen for three days.

Charles was born in Mississippi in 1865 or 1866. He lived the first decade of his life during Reconstruction, a moment of remarkable possibility, during which formerly enslaved African Americans gained citizenship and the right to vote. By the time a 30-year-old Charles moved to New Orleans in the mid-1890s, however, White Southerners were constructing the system of racial domination known as Jim Crow. Stripping Black men of the right to vote and drawing the “color line” through the public spaces of the region, white supremacists dismantled the advances of Reconstruction. They built Jim Crow upon a foundation of racial terrorism: Each year, White mobs lynched dozens of African Americans, often with the cooperation and complicity of local police departments.

Though he spent most of his life as a common laborer, Charles was well-read and politically engaged. By the time of his run-in with the police, he was making his living selling newspapers promoting Black immigration to Liberia. Charles may have imagined a new life in Africa, but in the meantime, he was determined to defend himself. Acquaintances reported that Charles was habitually armed and freely expressed his antipathy for the police and the white-supremacist justice system, vowing that he “never would be arrested” without a fight.

When Charles drew his gun on that July night, therefore, he was not just doing battle with the police. He was striking back at Jim Crow.

After Charles killed two police officers, White residents of New Orleans did not pause to consider his motivations. Instead, they took vengeance on the city’s Black population. On July 25, 1900, thousands of angry White New Orleanians formed a mob that roamed across the city. Though they were ostensibly searching for Charles, violence quickly became an end in and of itself. Over the next two days, they attacked dozens of Black men and women, murdering at least six.

On July 27, detectives tracked Charles to a house on Saratoga Street, where he killed two more officers. Within minutes, a heavily armed crowd gathered. During a shootout that lasted several hours, Charles killed three more people. Finally, city authorities set fire to his hideout. Charles was shot and killed as he attempted to escape the burning building.

During the last week of his life, Charles killed seven White people, including four members of the police department. According to the city’s official tallies, White mobs killed seven African Americans, including Charles. The true death toll was probably higher.

Though White Southerners regularly relied on violence to enforce their will, a Black man who fought back was a dangerous aberration. His story had to be erased, and White New Orleanians did their best to forget the events of July 1900.

But African Americans within and beyond New Orleans did the opposite. In fact, they frequently invoked the event, turning Charles into a folk hero and praising him for his acts of righteous violence. In 1901, two women caused a stir in Baton Rouge when they claimed that “what white people most needed in this town was a Robert Charles affair and it would teach them how to behave themselves.” In 1938, Jelly Roll Morton, the self-styled “inventor of jazz,” offered a detailed account of the riots and claimed to have performed a song about Charles. As jazz legend Danny Barker put it, “There’s a helluva story behind that day when he was shooting policemen.” Multiple narrators even insisted that Charles had somehow survived the climactic shootout on Saratoga Street. “He got away,” one claimed. “He got away ever since.”

Today, the United States finds itself in the midst of a long-overdue reckoning with the past. Confederate-themed memorials have come down across the country, including in New Orleans. Communities have engaged in critical dialogue about other historical sites, reflecting on the relationship between past and present.

As we work to remove statues that distort the past, we should also recognize histories that have never been commemorated officially. This includes stories of resistance — even armed, violent resistance — to racial oppression. A true reckoning with the past must be expansive and democratic. It must work to give voice to forgotten stories and to remedy silences, recovering events and figures that challenge simplistic narratives of the past.

In the end, the story of Robert Charles is useful precisely because it is such a challenging one. A full accounting of Charles’s actions must grapple with the violence and indignities of Black life in the Jim Crow South. From this perspective, it is almost impossible not to sympathize with his attack on an unjust racial regime.

At the same time, one cannot overlook the fact that Charles killed seven people. Was he a hero or a villain? A murderer or a martyr?

These moral ambiguities make the story of the 1900 riot a particularly valuable one for students of history, forcing us to ask ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. Given the continuing challenges of racism, policing, violence and incarceration in the contemporary United States, such considerations are especially valuable. The tale of Robert Charles still has many lessons to teach.

K. Stephen Prince is an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida. He is also author of Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915