Carnival of Fury- The Ballad of Robert Charles

robert charlesIn 1900 a black laborer named Robert Charles set off a massive manhunt after an altercation with several New Orleans police officers. Before all was done, Charles would shoot well over 20 whites sent to apprehend him, killing several. Altogether, 28 people (the exact number is truly unknown) would die in riots, including Charles, who made a last stand in a burning building. The violence that surrounded him continued to swirl and claim others even after his death. Previously unknown, the last turbulent days of Charles life would make him a monster to many and a folk hero to others. For blues artists he became one of the legendary “bad men”–those near mythic black personas of superhuman capabilities whose defiance of white authority was both frightening, dangerous and captivating all at once. He even had a ballad written in his honor. The famed Jelly Roll Morton would relate his own experience of the event in an oral tale to musicologist and archivist Alan Lomax, tying Robert Charles to an influential moment in the creation and dispersal of American Jazz.

This week brought an end (of sorts) to the tragic, violent tale of Christopher Jordan Dorner. Since Feb. 3, the story has been part of a media circus, which the public has followed, right down to the larger-than-life mountain shootout scene that appears to have to lead to his immolation and death. In his brief self-proclaimed war on the LAPD, including the  release of a “manifesto,” the former ex-police officer and Navy reservist seemed to fit a profile for everyone. For the media he was a sensation–a story larger than life, a Rambo emerged from the celluloid screens into our daily lives. For the LAPD, he was a dangerous mad man and public enemy #1; an unheard of $1 million dollar bounty was eventually placed on his head. For others, especially those who took seriously his charges of racism and corruption in the LAPD, Dorner has served as a type of anti-hero and vigilante. For the families and friends left in the wake of his four victims, he’ll likely only be remembered as a disturbed killer. The details surrounding Dorner’s death remain murky, and whatever conclusion forensics eventually arrive at, likely there will be skeptics highly distrustful of law enforcement due to a long history of corruption. The LAPD, who in hunting for Dorner incredibly shot and wounded *three* innocent people by accident, certainly haven’t done much throughout this ordeal to further the department’s community public relations problems. Dorner–villain, murderer and anti-hero–has managed to enter the realm of modern folklore. There are already claims that in fact, perhaps he did not perish in the fire, but escaped, and will return to resume his vengeance. From Jesse James to today, the “bad man” continues carry an aura of fascination in American culture, and is imbued with his own mythology.

As I watched the entire episode of Christopher Dorner unfold, with its varied intersections of law enforcement, race and the inescapable references to black masculinity (both blatant and coded), I couldn’t help but think of Robert Charles.There are differences of course. Robert Charles was not a former policeman; he didn’t have a premeditated manifesto; and his eventual “war” was not one of his choosing, but the result of a singular episode that triggered a cascading series of evens. But the fear, anger, loathing, media spectacle and eventual folkloric heights of his violent conflict (which also ended in a raging inferno and hail of bullets) are eerily similar.

In the summer of 1900, a black day laborer in New Orleans named Robert Charles touched off a race riot after a violent confrontation with a white police officer. In the week that followed, Charles would shoot twenty-seven whites, including seven policemen, in a desperate assault upon the Jim Crow apartheid system. His small war would reverberate beyond New Orleans, and leave a lasting impression upon the national psyche.

Not a great deal is known of Charles. Historian Ivy Hair in his work Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900, has tried to piece together the life of this relatively unknown figure that would become shrouded in legend and myth after his death. Much of this analysis owes to Hair’s research.

Like many other black southerners Charles grew up as a sharecropper. Though originally from Mississippi, he would end up in New Orleans by the turn of the century.  There he lived as a day laborer, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. While not seeming to have any political following or leaving any writings behind, cohorts noted that Charles was an outspoken figure on race relations who was openly critical of the violent, repressive and humiliating Jim Crow apartheid system that was part of black daily life. Believing that blacks could not expect to receive fair justice from white authorities, he advocated the need for self reliance. He was also known to be a supporter of self defense, and not only kept himself armed but was said to manufacture his own ammunition. At some point, Charles also became involved with African Methodist Episcopal leader Bishop Henry M. Turner’s “back-to-Africa” emigration movement, and was known to have circulated/sold his magazine as well as donate some of his meager earnings to the cause. Still, Charles was hardly a fiery activist. No doubt there were many black residents of New Orleans who thought like him, and went about their everyday lives nevertheless. He would likely have joined them in obscurity, if not for a fateful incident on July 23, 1900.

Around 11pm at that night, three white police officers, Sergeant Jules C. Aucion, August T. Mora, and Joseph D. Cantrelle, attempted to investigate “two suspicious looking Negroes” sitting on a porch in a predominately white neighborhood. The two were Charles and his roommate, 19-year-old Leonard Pierce. When questioned they replied they were “waiting for a friend.”  By most accounts, both were indeed there courting black women who were boarders in a nearby residence. At some point, Charles is said to have stood up. Taking this as a threat one of the police officers, Mora, attempted to grab him, setting off a struggle during which Mora assaulted Charles  with his billet. Though it is uncertain who drew a gun first, both Mora and Charles soon found themselves armed and exchanging shots–striking each other. Charles fled the scene injured and bleeding, leaving Pierce who was held at gunpoint by the other officers.

Returning to his residence Charles attempted to lay low. However, after interrogation, Pierce gave up his location and an armed patrol wagon was sent to apprehend him the next morning. But Charles had no intentions of surrendering. As the police approached his residence he fired on them with a rifle, mortally wounding one in the heart. Shouting, “I will give you all some!” Charles proceeded to shoot another officer in the head. The remaining patrol scattered, taking refuge, and allowing Charles to make another escape.

As word of Charles deeds spread, including the death of two officers, white New Orleans residents reacted with outrage and violence. A bounty was placed on Charles head, and local newspapers fed white anger by blaming the larger black community for the entire incident. Armed white mobs began roaming the streets, beating and killing any blacks they found. This went on for three days, until on Friday July 27th it was learned from an informant that Charles was hiding in a nearby building.

Police officers aided by an armed mob of white New Orleans citizens lay siege to the house, firing their weapons inside. At its height, they totaled nearly a thousand–anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, based on later investigations, placed the mob at 20,000. Yet Charles refused to give up. With his Winchester rifle and self-manufactured ammunition, he remained holed up, sporadically returning fire with such skillful accuracy that a few times the massive mob was sent scurrying for cover. Charles would shoot some twenty four whites in the day-long siege, allegedly killing five of them. Fearful of further losses, the police decided to burn down the building. The tactic worked, and Charles was forced to flee. As he attempted to do so he was shot to death. The frenzied mob dragged his body out from the flames and proceeded to mutilate it in their fury, shooting and beating until it was unrecognizable. Not content with Charles death, the mob surged into larger New Orleans, killing several more blacks and burning down a local black schoolhouse.

Robert Charles violent defiance to the social order would make national headlines. White newspapers described him as a monstrous brute, typical of what they saw as Negro crime and “savagery.” In a society where Jim Crow racism and white supremacy was codified as law, many black leaders and groups also made denunciations of Charles–likely out of fear of further retaliation. But in some quarters of the black community, both local and national, Charles deeds began to take on a celebratory cause of martyrdom.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her pamphlet Mob Rule in New Orleans, portrayed Robert Charles in legendary tones as “the hero of New Orleans” for his singular act of self defense. At a Boston gathering on anti-lynching, a black attendee allegedly asserted, “If one Negro can hold 20,000 at bay what can 10,000 Negroes do?” A white woman in Boston, Lillian Clayton Jewett, would form the Anti-Lynching League in honor of Robert Charles, whose members called for retribution and revenge–an act that placed her life in danger, as a “pro-negro agitator.” Some reactions turned violent, as Robert Charles brand of racial vigilantism seemed to reach up from the grave.

In Michigan a black boxer walked into a police station and attempted to murder a police chief in solidarity with Charles. In New Orleans a black train rider, Melby Dotson, awakened suddenly from fitful dreams of Charles death, drew a pistol and shot the white conductor; Dotson was subsequently lynched by a white mob. A black sympathizer of Charles would walk up and shoot Fred Clark–the black informant who had helped the police track Charles down–in the head, killing him instantly.

Robert Charles was buried before dawn on July 29 in an unmarked grave to prevent whites from dismembering his body for souvenirs–fingers, toes, ears, even his penis–a macabre act which was common at the time. The riots touched off by his small war sent numerous jazz and blues musicians fleeing New Orleans, taking the story of Robert Charles with them. Many would remember the incident for years after, and commit it to memory with “The Ballad of Robert Charles,” an ode to a figure they memorialized as a dangerous folk hero and the epitome of the “baaad nigger”–a titled previously given to the murderous pimp turned slum hero Lee Shelton, immortalized through blues as the indomitable Stagolee.

Some may read this as a defense of Christopher Dorner. That would be inaccurate. Dorner’s first alleged victims weren’t the corrupt and racist police he claimed to be waging a war against, but an assistant coach (Monica Quan) and her fiance, an African-American public safety officer (Keith Lawrence), at USC; their only crime seemed to be that Quan was the daughter of Dorner’s former union representative–hardly a defensible target for retribution. And while Dorner seemed to have experienced a mental breakdown that led to distinct premeditated motives, Robert Charles was just a man caught up in a set of terrible circumstances through which he tried frantically to survive. However, what followed in the case of Dorner, in its all its spectacle and media frenzy, throughout the wild manhunt that created more innocent victims (of both a vengeful police and a desperate fugitive) down to the finale of fiery violence and death, and his eventual memorailizing (often in unspoken racialized tones) as a ruthless killer or sympathetic anti-hero, leaves echoes of Robert Charles that will undoubtedly take its place in America’s folklore.

________________________________________________

References:

Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, The Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive, Other Lynch Statistics. 1900.

William Ivy Hair. Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900.  (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976)

Leon F. Litwack.  Trouble in Mind:  Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.  (New York:  Random House, 1998)

Patricia A Schechter. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

The Ballad of Robert Charles: The Riot That Gave Birth to Jazz & Blues [As heard on Studio 360, November 10, 2005] listen to an mP3 here.

4 thoughts on “Carnival of Fury- The Ballad of Robert Charles

  1. Pingback: Men in Black: A Lynching in Steampunk | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  2. I shared this story on my page, and on Face Book and Google + I found this a interesting perspective, some of the topics in this article also speaks volumes into the story of Robert Charles and the treatment of African-Black-Men in America.

    Floetic XpressionZ Writes: This story was an amazing read; Larry Malone introduced a similar article about the life story of our ancestor Robert Charles on Facebook. (I will place that excerpt in comments). The article moved me so much I wanted to learn more and see if I could find the Ballard of Robert Charles. Or was the music lost in time forever, I found this in my search. And wanted to share because I feel the plight of men in this country, and I realize more each day the targets they kill on a regular are Men, Women and Children/Teens. Our allege crime: “Is being born into sin because of the color of our skin.” Dayum shame you cannot live in peace, while being “African-Black in America or the World” why is this acceptable behavior in 2014. What injures my soul sometimes is that the brain washing has gone so deep into self-hate, self-destruction, they use us to kill people who look just like us, all over the world. WHY???

    This is one the main reason why I refuse to post tacky, ghetto, ratchet, hateful and distasteful behavior seen or done by us as a people, the one thing we all know is we have some people who act up and set the race back. But even a lost individual or soul still need our love, respect and support, while we re-teach them there is a better way to live, and they too are worthy of love, respect, understanding, compassion and a better life. Or have we as humans forgot why we need each other including the weakest link. (When do you need love the most???) When a person is lost, they honestly do not know self worthy, it is up to the people that know better to help them to change by teaching and leading by example, in my most humble opinion. (I could be wrong. And thank the most high God I still have compassion for other beings on the planet.) is the act of forgiveness dead in the world today? Is All hope Lost?

    My Eternal Pledge: I refuse to post hateful pictures that attack women, men and children of color, that bullschitt must die. I see a series of posts by so-called arm chair activist brothers and lost sisters on a giant bandwagon who claim to be conscious and spiritual on the next level. That keep posting these very disrespect and tasteless campaigns to exploit the hatred of African-Black men and women against each other, and it is so subtle, if you are sleep at the switch you will miss it. These post are full of critical remarks mostly towards women, example “This could be us but you are this that or the other,” and the constant comparing of African-Black Women to white women. I refuse to post things, that try to still pretend that all African-Blacks around the world are inadequacy and not worthy of love and respect. STOP IT!

    My goal is to Restore African-Black Love, African-Black Peace, African-Black Unity, and African-Black Unity starting here in the USA and then around the World. And if you are not posting positive images and articles that lift us up as a people, or exposes crimes against us as a people; (Without the added put downs of the Man/Woman/Child that lived through that injustice.) or if you are not posting about the cover-ups why the hell not. How many websites do we have with the propaganda that black people are no good do we have on the internet? Do we also in the Continuous and Spiritual community need to embrace this type of behavior, WTH!

    What I am witnessing post about big booty women and young people lost in the system, and the one I hate to see the most of yawl pretending that all men/teens in the USA are gay or on the down low? I think you post that mess because you yourself are gay and trolling for a new lover. (YEP I SAID IT!) There is a way to communicate to Men, Fathers, Brothers, Uncles and Male Cousins about the role of a man and that our young people are acting in a way that goes against the core believe. “That life must continue so protect the womb. But some of the most idiotic stories I have ever seen in my life are from Conscious Cats who are on a brand new dog food. Some of you sissies in the closet are not fooling me or anyone else. Own you and be who you are even if your choice is to be a man with a man. I have respect for anyone who makes choices and then lives by them with no apologies or excuses. They are who they are and you can teach me why or why not on the topics I do not have superb knowledge in. But you cannot become a teacher of your life until you are honest about your life and who you are. And the more I can learn the more I will be able to help the person looking to be a better being. Educate in a way that will help a person to grow past their own ignorance. And no matter what your station, core belief system or lifestyle is we all have the power to be teachers through our experiments and experiences in life.

    So I beg of you on the behalf of Men, Women Children and teens with no voice or choice, that do not know any better as of yet. To be aware of what you post, people are watching and paying attention to what you do, if you have any type of following or just one person who was featured for the day on the World Wide Web. Think about whom will see some of this mess I am speaking on now. I can speak on this subject because I have been guilty of not over standing my true self and the message of change I am capable of concaving to the world at large. And a person post asking us as a people, not to post ghetto mess; help me to overstand I could be better than helping spread the propaganda that we as a people are worthless. That was back in 2010 when I first came to websites like Facebook and MySpace. I was still finding my way in life and my voice. Now that I have found my voice, I refuse to dim the hope of woman that lived any part of my story and life. (The first 30 years of my life was based of abuse, at the hands of my parents and other family members and my ex-husband. I think what if someone had recorded my beatings and the placed it on some of these sites that promote hate, and abuse of women/men/teens and children.) Have you seen the hateful comments people leave behind, of these crimes, and how they blame the victim in the domestic violence situation. We as a people now act and behave like the slave master that use to beat us with whips or would rape us as a punishment or just because we were consider their property! 😦

    Our individual and collective voices can be heard from the cheap seats. I realize I cannot control another being, I am okay with that also, I ask myself and now you, “Are you an agent and tool of our plight and destruction?” For those individuals that continue to post the stuff that brings us down as a people or a world citizen; in the future I will just hide your feeds, so my target audience does not receive this corrupt and detrimental behavior. I also resent the post of men and women beating on each other, and children. This is not okay and if you think it is ok to post and re-post this bullschitt of hate, disrespect and violence; then you are major problem. Whose 15 minutes of fame in my world, has just died a horrible and painful death and I consider you a casualty in the war against us as a people. And as they say on my block, kick rocks with that madness. In addition to all you that claim you are doing this comparing thing to wake up the people, are full of that stuff that comes out of your behind. Since when does this conduct strengthen and encourage a person, by constantly putting men, women and children down. When the truth is most African Blacks in the USA and around the world do not act or behave in this manner, so why is this only type of activities some of you post. I refuse to be a part of insufferable things that are acceptable in society today, especially in African-Black communities in America and around the World. It is not okay to mutilate each other’s souls, because you looking for kicks or laughs at the real crime that just happen to the person in the pictures or videos you keep re-sharing. Stop being messengers of hate and crimes. We can do better and I expect better from the men and women who claim they are living an African-Black conscious and spiritual life.

    Yes this is how I really feel about what was inspired by the two article I just read; and the european and negropean” people that would see us all dead. Cannot do what was done to Robert Charles and the People of New Orleans during that time period. Nor could the powers that be get away with holding the poor people of Detroit hostage over a basic human right to water. And they could not get away with the blatant murder of Eric Garner in New York. And if we demanded the end to hateful bias remarks from Corporate News Media and began holding them accountable for the rhetoric they spew, life would change worldwide. It would help to end the corruption and brutality of leaders, police departments, and corporations all over the world.

    The Man/Woman in the mirror we all stare back at, has the power to lift up and rebuild, or tear down and destroy with actions words deeds and behavior. In closing I dare you to consider and take a real hard look at you and the person you are, and make necessary changes, because real spit, we need each other…

    As you were before my truth clashed with the reality of our responsibility towards each other…

    On July 20, 2014 2:06 P.M.
    Written By: Samantha MahMi aka Floetic XpressionZ
    As Inspired By: The Ballad of Robert Charles: that gave hope to me.
    © 2014 Floetic XpressionZ EnSyght L.L.C. (All Rights Reserved)

  3. Pingback: Carnival of Fury – The Ballad of Robert Charles & My Thoughts | Floetic Xpressionz Cypher

  4. This is good information, but I was hoping to know more about his life when he was born, and where he was raised, and more information on his life before his accomplishments.

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