Tuesday, March 21, 2006

“The Ballad of Robert Charles and the Sorrow Songs”

"The Ballad of Robert Charles and the Sorrow Songs" date: 2002 medium: ink pen and whiteout size: 4'x8'


Robert Charles was a proud Black native Mississippian who went to live in New Orleans around the dawn of the 20th Century. Mr. Charles was self-educated, highly intelligent and very well read. He followed the teachings of the controversial and radical Black leader/ Pan Africanist Bishop Henry M. Turner. Bishop Henry M. Turner, a native of Georgia, U.S.A., preached that Blacks should defend themselves with guns against the Ku Klux Klan and other White racist institutions that sought to destroy and kill Black people in the United States. Being a man of religion and action, Turner also urged Blacks to start seeing God the Benevolent and Merciful One in their own image instead of in the popular image of the oppressors which belittled their humanity and labeled them inferior.

Robert Charles also felt that Black people should consider returning to their ancestral homeland of Africa (in particular, the nation of Liberia –which was founded by former Black U.S. slaves in 1822) to escape from the White supremacist power structure in the U.S.A. Mr. Charles was also a sales agent for Turner’s magazine, Voice of Missions, which talked about some of the previously mentioned beliefs in exact full detail and analysis. In 1896 Robert Charles joined the International Migration Society, a group which advocated sending Black Americans to Liberia.

Mr. Charles honestly felt that no Black person would ever receive full treatment as a citizen and human being in a country where the violent lynching of a Black person took place everyday. This country was also the same place where Blacks were not even allowed to vote or receive equal treatment and protection under the law (the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896 by the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized segregation). This, in theory, meant that Blacks were allowed to be treated separately but as equals of Whites. However, in reality this meant that Blacks were forced by law to endure harsher, more unfair and inferior treatment by Whites. One day Robert Charles became infuriated after hearing the grisly news of the fate of a Black man in Atlanta named Sam Hose. Hose was ruthlessly lynched by a large White mob for killing his White boss in self defense and allegedly raping his boss’s White wife. The rape allegation later proved to be false as Mr. Hose was nowhere near the house at the time the alleged rape took place. The lynching of Sam Hose by all accounts was very gruesome and traumatic. Mr. Hose’s nose, ears, toes, fingers, genitals and tongue were all cut off while he was alive causing him great excruciating pain. He was also skinned alive, doused with kerosene and set on fire while tied to a tree. Hose’s mutilated body parts and postcards of the tragic event were later sold at stores, picnics, and other functions throughout the Atlanta area. This horrible and tragic event and its aftermath troubled and inspired the great human rights activist and social scientist Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois (a professor at Atlanta University at the time of Hose’s demise). Du Bois started to take and engage in a more proactive, progressive, and demonstrative stance on equal rights for Blacks that eventually led to the formation of the N.A.A.C.P. and to the Modern American Civil Rights Movement However, for Robert Charles , an expert marksman and gun owner, the sickening ghoulish affair meant getting revenge paid for in blood and violence.

On July 23, 1900 , a hot and steamy night in New Orleans, Robert Charles and a friend were confronted by aggressive and racist cops on the “ the suspicion of being suspicious” while waiting for his girlfriend and her female companion on the steps of her residence. After being physically assaulted by the cops, Robert Charles drew his gun in self defense and fired at the two cops. Later, one of the officers, Officer August Mora admitted that he did draw his gun first. Charles was injured in the leg after being hit with return fire. He escaped police custody and for several days in July 1900 New Orleans erupted in thunderous riots and chaos. The New Orleans Riot of 1900 was one of the worst in American history. The Black section of New Orleans was decimated by a large and furious White citizen mob. Many innocent Blacks were killed including ‘White folks that looked Black’. Estimates stated that as many as 5,000 to 10,000 Whites from different parts of Louisiana as well as from several states took part in the melee. Eventually Robert Charles made his last stand on Friday afternoon July 27. Before Charles was taken out by a 19 year old medical student at 1208 Saratoga Street in New Orleans, he made sure his Winchester rifle did a lot of talking. Of the 50 rounds that Charles shot 27 found human targets. In all, Charles killed seven White people including 4 police officers. After Robert Charles was killed, the White mob proceeded to fill Robert Charles lifeless corpse with bullets (37 in all) and to beat and stomp him beyond recognition. His body was later taken away by a patrol wagon for autopsy. Charles was buried early Sunday morning on July 29 in an unmarked grave at Holt Cemetery (the same place where jazz legend Buddy Bolden is buried) to prevent the White mob from “re-lynching” and mutilating the body for souvenir and sales items. Later, jazz and blues musicians paid tribute to Robert Charles and his heroic stand by playing a song entitled “The Ballad of Robert Charles”, a song which cemented Robert Charles’ place as a Black folk hero for many in the Black community. Unfortunately, the song is lost to posterity because many musicians “forgot” the song due to fear of retaliation from White patrons and White people in general. Many Whites, as well as some Blacks, were eager to forget and not address the causes and effects of that particularly sad episode in American history.


Hair,William Ivy, Carnival of Fury, Louisiana State University Press; 1986.

Warner, Coleman, “Fury Revisited” in Times Picayune, July 25,2000.


Anonymous said...

I read Hair's book and this is a pretty biased summary of it.

Robert P. Robertson said...

If you would like to know anything about the entire true story of Robert Charles, read "The Tragedy of Robert Charlres" by Robert P. Robertson. I wrote the book and spent a year doing research on it. In reality, Robert Chsrtles was the victim of police brutality. He was not at all a political activist. The incident with Sam Hose did not cause his reaction that night on July 23rd. He wrote Bishop Turner complaining about the incident happening in Georgia wherre Bishop Turner presided but did or said nothing about it. Charles cared a lot about what was happening in America to blacks, and held no hatred or bitteness about whites in America. He wanted to get out of America and return to Africa where he planned on starting a revolution to bring Africa bak to the glory it held as ythe birthplace of mankind and of civilization. That was his onlyu agenda. He understood deeply the stultifying effects of racism, and knew thst whites would never allow blacks any opportunity in America. He was an early proponent of Human Rights. As you said, he was a proud black man with a deep sense of religion and self-esteem. He was not going to accept abuse of any kind from anyone. Though he did have a very violent past, which was why he fled to New Orleans, he grew from it and matured for the six years he was here. His philisophy came from a pan-Africanist preacher named Rev. William Royal, and that was whern he began to change and educate himself so that once he returned to African, he would have the knowledge, sdkills, and fortitude to lead the revolution. For one hundred and nine years, Robert Charles has been enshrouded in myth, legend, and lies. I wrote The Tragedy to exonerate a man who has been unjustly accused, misinterpreted, and misconceived. He was placed in a catch-22 where he had to do what he did. Either way, he would have been killed, so he decided to give himself a chance tolive or to die in a noble way. After writing The Tragedy of Robert Charles, I had a dream that a man walked up tyo me, reached out his hand, and said "Thank you." As the man walked away, I saw the brownish-black derby hat. . . It was Robert Charles thanking me for freeing his spirit.
I'm glad to have gotten the chance to meet him. He was one hell of a man.
Robert P. Robertson