The Robert Charles riots in 1900 tragically illustrated the tensions between blacks and whites in the post-reconstruction era.
The incident began on July 23, 1900, when police approached Robert Charles and his roommate sitting on the steps of 2815 Dryades St. Police started beating Charles. Charles and a patrolman exchanged gunshots, and both were wounded. Charles escaped and was hiding at his apartment at 2023 Fourth St. when police arrived the next morning. Charles shot and killed two officers be-fore escaping again.
In the days that followed, police searched for Charles. In retaliation for Charles’ attack on the police, white mobs took to the streets and attacked and killed random blacks. At least 20 African-Americans were killed and two black schools were burned.On July 27, Charles was found to be hiding at 1208 Saratoga St. In a shootout, he killed two additional officers. Volunteers went inside the house and set a fire on the bottom floor to smoke Charles out.
When he came out, he was shot from all sides. His body was taken and dragged through the streets.Charles was hailed as a folk hero by many in the black community and a song “The Ballad of Robert Charles,” was written about him. Jelly Roll Morton told Alan Lomax, in recordings for the Library of Congress, that he wouldn’t sing the song, however, out of fear for his safety.