- Remembering Robert Charles:Violence and Memory in Jim Crow New Orleans
In I938, jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton told folklorist Alan Lomax about a song that was too dangerous to sing. It described the events of July 1900, when the city of New Orleans erupted in a four-day spasm of racial violence after a black man named Robert Charles shot and killed several white police officers. Though Morton remembered many details of the riot (and fabricated several others along the way), he adamantly insisted that the words of the Robert Charles song were lost to history. "This song was squashed very easily by the [police] department," Morton said, "due to the fact that it was a trouble breeder. So that song never did get very far. I once knew the Robert Charles song, but I found out it was best for me to forget it and that I did in order to go along with the world on the peaceful side."1 Perhaps Jelly Roll Morton had truly forgotten the ballad of Robert Charles by the time of his interview with Lomax. Perhaps he was simply unwilling to share it. Either way, Morton's peculiar relationship with the Charles story—unable to forget but unwilling to remember—offers a striking point of departure for a study of popular memory and racial violence in the Jim Crow South.
Relying on Jelly Roll Morton's recollections, a number of scholars have argued that the tale of Robert Charles's stand against the New Orleans Police Department was kept alive in the city's African American homes and workplaces for decades. In Carnival of Fury, an impressive piece of historical detective work first published in 1976 that still stands as the only book-length study of the Robert Charles riot, William Ivy Hair writes, "Among lower class blacks [Charles] became [End Page 297] an immediate folk hero and 'the Robert Charles song,' praising his exploits, would occasionally be played at all-black gatherings for years to come."2 Other scholars offer similar assessments, using Morton's reminiscences to make a claim for the clandestine persistence of the Charles story.3 In these treatments, Robert Charles is elevated to mythic status, a part of the folk culture of black New Orleans in the early twentieth century. There is much that is satisfying about this narrative, which treats the durability of the Charles story as evidence of deep-rooted cultural resistance to the Jim Crow regime. At the same time, such a framing has limitations. It assumes that the veneration of Charles took place exclusively in secret gatherings and behind closed doors. An unknown, unseen cast of thousands may have cultivated the memory of Robert Charles through whispers and late-night jam sessions, but historians are denied access to their deeds, their thoughts, and even their names. Such details would seem to be lost forever, along with the words to the Robert Charles song.
This willingness to simply assert or assume Charles's status as a folk hero has prevented historians from asking further questions about the legacy of the 1900 New Orleans riot and, by extension, about the nature of popular memory and its role in resisting racial oppression. It is possible, and necessary, to move beyond generic references to the lost ballad of Robert Charles. The subject demands much greater analytical specificity, in terms of personnel, content, and context. We do not need to settle for a faceless and nameless black working class; it is possible to bring actual people into the study of folk memory—to learn who remembered the Robert Charles story, when they remembered it, and why they remembered it. This approach creates memory studies from the bottom up, a social history of popular memory. [End Page 298]
This article uses the commemoration of Robert Charles and the 1900 riot to explore the relationship between popular memory and black resistance in the Jim Crow South. In so doing, it extends the discussion of early-twentieth-century black resistance to Jim Crow from the organized—streetcar boycotts and antilynching campaigns—to the realm of everyday life.4 The story of Robert...