To Poison a Nation: The Murder of Robert Charles and the Rise of Jim Crow Policing in America

New Pr.. Jun. 2021. 480p. ISBN 9781620976036. $27.99. SOC SCI
Rousted by three white policemen while sitting with a friend on a New Orleans doorstep on July 23, 1900, Robert Charles resisted. Baker (history, Bates Coll.) details how Charles, a 35-year-old Mississippi-born Black man, arrived at that moment—and how New Orleans arrived at that moment. The author casts the July 23 event as pivotal; it certainly turned deadly. Charles was bludgeoned and shot by the police officers; he in turn shot and killed two of the men and then escaped. This set off a manhunt and eventually the three-day Robert Charles riots, in which white people rampaged through Black New Orleans neighborhoods and killed a number of Black bystanders. In a gun battle, a cornered Charles killed seven people and wounded at least 20 more; eventually he was forced out of his hiding place and gunned down before mobs mutilated his body. Baker effectively describes the developing and subsequent emotive environment of race relations in New Orleans, amid urban machine politics and labor strife. The author weaves in connections to 21st-century policing and white supremacist violence; these extend and add interpretive analysis to earlier accounts of the tragedy, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s noteworthy 1900 report and historian William Ivy Hair’s 1976 Carnival of Fury.
VERDICT This straightforward recounting of a notable, sometimes forgotten moment in American history deserves attention; the riots’ lingering effects are still felt in the 21st century.
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