The hero of New Orleans

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After hearing that hundreds of racists had joined in the lynching and mutilation of a black labourer, Robert Charles called on black people to take up arms in self-defence. John Newsinger tells his incredible story.

On 23 April 1899 Sam Hose, a black farm labourer, was lynched in Palmetto, Georgia, after killing his employer in self-defence. An excursion train was run from Atlanta carrying over a thousand people to watch the spectacle with the guard famously calling, “All aboard for the burning.” Even by the standards of the time (more than 80 black men and women were lynched in the US in 1899), Hose’s lynching was a brutal affair. His ears, fingers, face and genitalia were cut off in front of a jeering crowd of men, women and children. After this mutilation he was burned alive and his charred body cut up for souvenirs. Slices of his heart and liver were offered for sale at 25c a slice.

The killing outraged black America. W E B Du Bois, a successful black academic, was out walking in Atlanta when he was told that Hose’s knuckle bones were on display in a shop down the road. The episode convinced him to leave the safety of the ivory tower and launched him on a career of political activism. Ida B Wells, the great campaigner against lynching, raised the funds to hire a private detective to investigate the killing and went on to write her classic work, Lynch Law in Georgia. And in New Orleans Robert Charles, a black labourer involved in the Back to Africa movement, began urging his friends to arm, both to protect themselves and to prevent further lynchings.

These were dangerous times. In Louisiana there was a campaign under way to strip black people of the vote. The number of registered black voters fell from 130,444 in 1896 to 5,320 in 1898. In New Orleans the newspapers were warning of a coming race war, with one paper arguing that the “extermination” of the black population would be necessary unless they accepted rule by “an iron hand”, and another advocating either deportation or sterilisation. There was a routine, everyday brutalisation of black people.

Robert Charles had had enough. On 23 July 1900 Charles and his friend Lennard Pierce were waiting for two women friends when they were approached by three policemen who accused them of loitering. One of the policemen began clubbing Charles, who broke away. The policeman drew his gun and shot and wounded Charles. Charles by now always went armed and he fired back, wounding his attacker, and escaped. Pierce was arrested. Later that day a squad of six policemen went to arrest Charles at the room he rented. Armed with a Winchester rifle, he once again made his escape, killing two of the policemen. He hid out with friends at 1208 Saratoga Street.

The hunt for this “black fiend” was joined by hundreds of armed vigilantes who unleashed a pogrom on the streets of New Orleans. A 75 year old black man, Baptiste Philo, was shot dead, as were two other people unfortunate enough to be caught by the vigilantes. A white sailor who objected to the lynchings had to be rescued by the police to save him from being strung up, but was fined $25 for “incendiary remarks”. According to William Ivy Hair, the historian of this episode, white hatred made an outbreak inevitable at this time and if it had not been Charles then some other pretext would have sparked off an attack on the black community.

By 26 July an informer had told the police where Charles was hiding out. The police laid siege to the house, reinforced by hundreds of armed vigilantes, watched by a crowd estimated at 20,000. Charles shot it out with a thousand hate-filled gunmen. Between 3pm and 5pm he fired some 50 times, killing five of his attackers and seriously wounding another seven. 1208 Saratoga Street was riddled with over 5,000 bullet holes. Unable to finish him off, the building was fired to smoke him out. Charles came out, gun in hand, and was shot dead. He was shot over 30 times and then the crowd rushed forward to stamp and trample his corpse until he was unrecognisable.

Any expression of sympathy with Charles placed the speaker in danger. The day after the final shootout a black man in Houston, Texas, who spoke up for him, was shot dead in the street. And attacks continued throughout the rest of the year. The black population had to be terrorised to ensure that Charles did not set an example. Nevertheless there was widespread admiration and support for him. The man who informed on him was shot dead by one of Charles’s friends later in the year. And his exploits inspired a blues song, the Robert Charles Blues, that became too dangerous to perform and has been lost.

In the Philippines, where US troops were fighting Filipino rebels, the rebels put up placards asking black troops why they were fighting for the people who had killed Sam Hose and Robert Charles. Ida Wells, herself an advocate of armed self-defence, memorialised Charles in her Mob Rule in New Orleans. She wrote, “The white people of this country may charge that he was a desperado, but to people of his own race Robert Charles will always be regarded as the hero of New Orleans.”

For more read William Ivy Hair’s Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 (Louisiana State UP, 2008)