Black Remembrance and Racial Violence in New Orleans

Searching Negroes for arms in police station, 1922 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

In 1831, Nat Turner—who led a band of bondpeople into insurrection in Southampton, Virginia –was executed, quelling what a great many whites thought permanently ended their greatest living Black fear.  However, historian Andrew Baker has produced a riveting and page-turning account of how, sixty-nine years later, yet another Black man rose to fame and became, within mere days, a marked target, resulting in the detonation of horrific violence that crossed many racial lines in New Orleans, Louisiana. Adding to the growing scholarship centered on policing, crime, and racial violence, Baker provides a historical key to better understand the panoramic timeline of bloodshed that spilled for racial reasons not only that summer in 1900, but for years and decades to come across and beyond twentieth-century America.

Throughout To Poison A Nation: The Murder of Robert Charles and the Rise of Jim Crow Policing in America Baker reveals a war within a war shadowed by history while probing the dangerous interplay of murder, the archive, and the death of memory.  Robert Charles is remembered by some as a “spree killer,” while the implosion of racial violence that played out is often attributed to him by referring to it as the Robert Charles Race Riot.  Framed simply as a “race riot” blurs the question of what actually happened that Monday evening, on July 23, as Robert Charles and his roommate sat on some steps, unfamiliar and marked as suspicious to others, awaiting a night out with female friends.  Likewise, “race riot” overlooks the modernizing of a new police force that emerged through the summer interaction.  Baker expands the optic by integrating varied sources—senate and census records, an impressive array of newspapers, municipal and gubernatorial records, letters, parish death records, criminal court and council archives—allowing readers to understand that Charles was murdered by an enormously powerful system with a wide network of influence. 

At the heart of Baker’s seminal work lies the prehistory of long forgotten white violence–both mob-like and structurally waged (through politics and institutional power)—against Black people at the start of the twentieth century.  The story of Robert Charles has been told before, but not in the remarkably astute, layered way Baker does.  Baker poignantly resuscitates him back into real time, leaving one to question not only how we ever forgot Robert Charles, but, even more, how did the relics of power expeditiously filter layers of people, class, and status anchored on the death of Charles, his memory, and any resonance of black resistance, perceived and/or imagined.  Unveiling the many detonators that summer in 1900 New Orleans—a corrupt mayor/political machine, mob rule, armed businessmen, journalists, the police, as well as selected black elite—Baker meticulously shatters typical assumptions of the twentieth century and the memory of power held solely by the KKK within the south and mob ruling north. He unveils a collision of many worlds and people, ruthless business and politics, and the weaponizing of misinformation, hatred, and violence all at once in one city. 

The prologue points to the primary threads of the book, deeply teased throughout the bloody landscape Baker unveils in twentieth-century New Orleans. His opening three chapters provide an interesting lens tracing the history, life, and movement of Robert Charles while also exposing the ever-tumultuous political terrain of policing, laws, and local sentiment amid the lunge towards modernity.  In the riveting pages in between, especially from Chapter 4 to the book’s ending, To Poison A Nation reads like the movie that is still waiting to be produced about Robert Charles.  Baker reveals how the mobilizing of violence owed to the far reach of power and racism that in many ways killed Robert Charles as well as his legacy, instantly extinguishing him in the name of justice and white civic duty.  Charles’ murder, as Baker aptly argues, concretized many realities at the turn of a new century, leading to the powerful rise and tangible implementation of Jim Crow policing that would do more than merely signal a modern future. Instead, an all-powerful state emerged that would no longer need to rely on willing local white vigilantes, newspapers, nor the domino of flagrant publicly open violence waged on everyday Black people to reinforce true power.  The New Orleans political and entrepreneurial future relied collectively on a growing white police force, arming police with high caliber weapons, as well as establishing a white guarded prison that collectively set into motion a modern future permanently normalizing the lure of profit from warehousing humans. 

Baker’s book contributes to the history of remembrance in four concretely useful ways.  First, he goes beyond viewing the racialized spectacle, city wide manhunt, and the violence in between as a race riot, seeing it instead as a powerful empire of many that ignited unexpected moments of street violence, manifesting long term with the hardened rise of Jim Crow policing and a newly invested carceral state.  The second most powerful point he demonstrates is the immeasurable power of the media, particularly the central master of information, Confederate veteran Henry Hearsey, who castigated crime and gave voice to rage within the local newspaper by weakening resistance, stoking racialized fears, and honoring the most political, patriotic, and loyal whites.  The power of the media before and after Robert Charles’ murder epitomized cooperation and the fueling of corruption, making undeniably visible the public fires of violence that damaged houses, businesses, and everyday lives across many racial and ethnic lines. Baker fills a void, showing death of memory as operative amid the manipulation continuously waged by the media in tandem with politicians who desperately sought to control the future of remembrance.  Equally critical is the full centering of black sexual politics made publicly notable in newspapers as many sought to create a criminal profile of Robert Charles in what became the making of a monster by the media. Through the public criminalizing process, Charles’s alleged girlfriend, Virginia Banks, became central to white audiences in determining who the real Robert Charles was, in life and as later revealed in the story, following his death. 

Third and most wildly unpredictable yet relentless in the war against Robert Charles was the filtration of white mob rule, both paramilitary and white vigilantes.  Centering their forceful place in the narrative with captivating description and detail, Baker extends the shadowy yet long familiar story of racialized violence that emerges from the white edges of society, swarming upon Black communities led by pursuit of an alleged ‘Black criminal’ with hundreds of white bodies, clubs, guns, and axes, making Black protection virtually impossible. To Poison A Nation is the long awaited bridge between many themes and unexpected histories placing Baker’s work into direct conversation with William Ivy Hair, Joel Williamson, Jeffrey Adler and K. Stephen Price by expanding the History of New Orleans, the 1900 New Orleans riot, and Jim Crow policing.1 The epicenter of emboldened racism Baker exposes puts him also in even wider conversation with Julius Scott, Sally Hadden, Hannah Rosen, Amy Louise Wood, Franny Nudelman, and Sheila Smith McKoy when we reconsider the variance of treatment anchored on white supremacy and overturning any notion of Black freedom by flagrantly intruding, harming, terrifying, and even killing black people in the name of white justice.2With Andrew Baker the story of Robert Charles and his murder can join the growing cadre of scholars focused on Black criminality and the policing of Black masculinity including Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Carl Suddler, and Douglas J. Flowe.

Equally potent in the story Baker unveils is the nuanced way the symbolism of poison creatively filters throughout, leaving layered meanings.  The irony of poisoning and the very thing whites feared most—Black violence—became the very violent tool that they unleashed to counter any attempts at Black resistance.  Baker likens violence to the way that sickness spreads, poisoning a nation.  This was the sickness many whites sought to prevent that summer in 1900 New Orleans, while no doubt facilitating its spread.  By the book’s end, Baker reminds us that he sought, moreover, to center the varied stories of those destroyed by such an American poison.

Going further, Andrew Baker poignantly exposes the tremendous aftermath following the outplay of white violence and unruliness through Charles’ manhunt, unearthing more than the remnants of burning buildings and the scattered, wounded, dying, and dead.  He shows the body in pain, and the body in death, as he detailed the visceral white rage manifested on Robert Charles’s body, making clear the supremacy sought over Black life and Black death. Assembled whites clamored to get their hands on Charles’ criminalized body, firing revolvers and rifles—leaving an estimated thirty-four bullets—while others stomped his head, crushing Charles’s skull and releasing deeply held resentment on an unruly black body and, most of all, a police assassin. The aftermath extended beyond Charles’s body, as terrorism continued against local living blacks without cause, and whites who told of past violent truths faced death threats and prison.  

Equally enduring in the aftermath that Baker reveals was the policing of Black expression through song and memory.  Robert Charles’s murder came on the heels of iconic songs “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny,” based on 1895 and 1899 murders in St. Louis, Missouri that became national ballads.  Any vocalized attempt at restoring memory of Charles and the week-long incidents of racial uprising was routinely forbidden from musical commemoration anywhere in New Orleans.  

To Poison A Nation is a tremendous contribution to the study of African American history, policing, crime, Black masculinity, and racial violence, as well as the history of terror, politics, business, journalism, New Orleans and urban studies.  It shows that from beginning to end, the enduring power of criminalizing everyday Black lives at the turn of the twentieth century and the arrival of a modern policing and carceral force. One hundred and twenty-one years later, Baker leaves readers to consider: is America a nation poisoned from hatred and endless fear of the threat and/or rise of Black violence?

  1.  William Ivy Hair, Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2008); Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 1984); Jeffrey Adler, Murder and the Policing of Race: New Orleans, 1920-1945 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019); and K. Stephen Price, The Ballad of Robert Charles: Searching for the New Orleans Riot of 1900 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
  2. Julius Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2018); Sally Hadden, Slave Patrols Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011);  Franny Nudelman, John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); James Cameron, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story (LifeWritesPress, 2016); and Sheila Smith McKoy, When Whites Riot:Writing Race and Violence in American and South African Culture (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).
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Sowande’ M. Mustakeem

Sowande’ Mustakeem is an Associate Professor in the Departments of History and the African & African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the two time award-winning author of Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (2016). Mustakeem has also published a number of influential articles and book chapters on topics including Black women’s history, the social history of medicine, and the interconnection of gender and crime. Follow her on Twitter @somustakeem.