For a brief moment in the summer of 1900, Robert Charles was
arguably the most infamous black man in the United States. After an
altercation with police on a New Orleans street, Charles killed two
police officers and fled. During a manhunt that extended for days,
violent white mobs roamed the city, assaulting African Americans
and killing at least half a dozen. When authorities located
Charles, he held off a crowd of thousands for hours before being
shot to death. The notorious episode was reported nationwide; years
later, fabled jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton recalled memorializing
Charles in song. Yet today, Charles is almost entirely invisible in
the traditional historical record. So who was Robert Charles,
really? An outlaw? A black freedom fighter? And how can we
reconstruct his story?
In this fascinating work, K. Stephen Prince sheds fresh light on both the history of the Robert Charles riots and the practice of history-writing itself. He reveals evidence of intentional erasures, both in the ways the riot and its aftermath were chronicled and in the ways stories were silenced or purposefully obscured. But Prince also excavates long-hidden facts from the narratives passed down by white and black New Orleanians over more than a century. In so doing, he probes the possibilities and limitations of the historical imagination.