Background

On the night of July 23, 1900, an African American man named Robert Charles sat with a friend on a stoop in a back-of-town New Orleans neighborhood. Three white members of the New Orleans Police Department approached. When their exchange grew heated, Robert Charles pulled his gun, wounding one officer before making his escape. Several hours later, police tracked Charles to his rented room nearby. Charles shot and killed two white police officers and then escaped once more. Charles went into hiding at a friend’s house about a mile away.

Over the next several days, white residents of New Orleans used Charles’s actions as a pretext to commit acts of violence against innocent African Americans. Armed mobs roamed the streets, pulling black riders off streetcars, entering black homes, and murdering with impunity. Victims included a 75-year old vendor at the French Market and a middle-aged mother killed in her own home. Over several days of violence, mobs killed five African Americans and wounded at least a dozen more.

On July 27, the New Orleans Police Department finally located Robert Charles. Charles killed the two police officers who discovered him, then retreated to the second floor of an outbuilding behind 1208 Saratoga Street. A crowd of thousands, largely made up of armed vigilantes, quickly gathered. During the ensuing shootout, Robert Charles shot several members of the mob before he was killed. Later that night, in one final act of racial vengeance, a white crowd set fire to the Thomy Lafon School, the city’s premier African American school.

Thus ended the most violent week in the racial history of post-Civil War New Orleans. In all, Robert Charles killed seven white people, including four members of the New Orleans Police Department. According to the official tally, white mobs killed five African Americans – none of whom had anything to do with Robert Charles – and wounded many more.

It is easy enough to narrate the events of July 1900, but the story’s central figure – Robert Charles – remains a shadow. Traditional archival sources can tell us next to nothing about Charles. Though Charles was literate and politically engaged, a single letter written months before his death would appear to be the only trace of his voice that survives. Before his violent encounter with the NOPD, Robert Charles seems have made little mark on the public records of New Orleans. Indeed, were it not for the spectacular violence of the last week of his life, Robert Charles would be all but lost to history.
Who was Charles? How do we tell his story? What impulses drove him to open fire on members of the New Orleans Police Department? How do we re-create Robert Charles’s world, lacking any direct evidence from Charles himself?

This database grew out of these questions. It sprang from my research for a book on Robert Charles and the 1900 New Orleans riot. Though the book and the database are related, they are not identical. While the book focuses specifically on the 1900 riot, this database explores a larger issue: the nature of policing in Jim Crow New Orleans. As I pondered the evidentiary challenges that Robert Charles posed, it became clear that a thorough accounting of the New Orleans Police Department’s relationship with city residents – particularly African American residents – was an essential part of the story.

Fortunately, a complete run of New Orleans Police Department arrest records for the early 20th century is available on microfilm at the New Orleans Public Library. These arrests were originally entered in large bound volumes, organized by date and by precinct. While other sorts of documentation – annual reports, homicide reports, police rosters – provide useful information on the NOPD, the arrest records provide an unparalleled glimpse into the daily work of the police department and its relationship with city residents.

I began by transcribing a small selection of arrest records, focusing on the weeks immediately preceding the riot and the two police precincts closest to Robert Charles’s apartment. I hoped to shed light on patterns of racialized policing that might help to explain Robert Charles’s actions on the night of July 23, 1900. Working with a team of undergraduate researchers in the history department at the University of South Florida, I was able to find a pattern of differential arrests by race that offered a tantalizing glimpse at what Robert Charles may have been thinking when he decided to draw his weapon during his exchange with the NOPD.

In the process, however, I realized that a database of arrests had uses that extended far beyond the Robert Charles story. The project I began to imagine – a searchable, sortable, web-based database and map – would be an invaluable resource for students, scholars, and the public alike. Studies of the so-called “carceral state” have proliferated in recent years, as historians have worked to understand the causes and significance of mass incarceration in the contemporary United States. Given this interest, the appeal of a fully searchable web database containing every arrest in a major American city for a specified period of time seemed immediate and obvious.

The location (New Orleans) and timeframe (the early 20th century) under consideration were, of course, dictated by my interest in the Robert Charles story. But upon further reflection, a database of arrest records that used Jim Crow New Orleans as its test case came to seem ideal. New Orleans was a major southern port city with a significant immigrant population. Though it retained traces of its multiracial past, the city had, by 1900, largely come to adopt the black/white racial binary that predominated in most of the South. The turn-of-the-century years saw the Crescent City come to embrace the logic of Jim Crow segregation – a transition that is captured in the arrests preserved here. New Orleans was a city that was simultaneously southern, American, and global. For this reason, it seems a perfect subject for this study.

Though they have some clear limitations, discussed elsewhere on this site, the arrest records contain an extraordinary amount of historical information. Students of African American history and policing in the Jim Crow era will certainly find plenty to interest them here, but the arrest records should also offer a useful resource for scholars of immigration, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, labor, urban development, geography, and other topics. I fully expect that this resource will prove useful to scholars in ways I have yet to consider.

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  • history@uga.edu

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