Who Was Robert Charles?

Drawing of Robert Charles in the
New Orleans Daily Picayune, July 27, 1900
Image Ownership: Public Domain.

Robert Charles, a Black man living in New Orleans at the turn of the century is credited (or discredited depending on one's perspective), for the being the catalyst of the New Orleans' Riot (NOR) of 1900.  Also called the Robert Charles' Riots of 1900, Robert Charles was viewed as the reason why whites went on a killing rampage of innocent Black citizens during this incident which lasted approximately three days.  The term "riot" is a misnomer when referring to the NOR of 1900 in that Blacks in New Orleans were not rioting as much as running for their lives when white mobs indiscriminately began beating and killing them in their desire to punish anyone of the same hue as Robert Charles. Charles, in hiding following multiple, violent encounters with the New Orleans Police Department who were searching for him, resulted not only in the brutal killing of Robert Charles but multiple police officers and mob members who eventually surrounded, smoked out, shot and killed Robert Charles when finally located in a home in the city.

The significance of Robert Charles during this period of time is that an intellegient, self-educated Black man became an advocate for Black rights during a time when few, of any color, had the courage to stand up to an extremely oppressive, racist and murderous white power structure.  A supporter of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa Movement," Charles was disillusioned with the plight of American Blacks at the hands of the pervailing power structure.  Fate and circumstance would thrust Robert Charles into the limelight, albeit briefly and notoriously when a confrontation with local NOPD officers resulted in both Charles and an officer mutually shooting each other in their respective legs.  Subsequent search for Charles resulted in the death of a New Orleans' police captain at the hands of Robert Charles.  The combination of these incidents then led to the police and deputized mobs of whites scouring the city looking for Charles who, as previously stated, was eventually cornered, smoked out and killed by a Tulane medical student as he fled the burning house in which he was hiding.  Surrounded by a mob of 1,000 or more citizens and police, Robert Charles returned the fire of the mob inflicting death and injury upon some of those meaning to do him harm before falling to the mob himself.

The Robert Charles Project bears the name of this man because of his singular courage and willingness to die for his beliefs against a racist criminal justice system at a time when open advocacy of Black civil rights was often a basis to lynch Blacks for having the audacity to stand up for themselves.

The definitive work on the New Orleans' Riots of 1900 and the story of Robert Charles is "Carnival of Fury" by William Ivy Hair.