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Carnival of Fury- The Ballad of Robert Charles

[robert charles] In 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.Thereare 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.