Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot

William Ivy Hair published Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 in 1976. Professor Hair has written other books most notably The Kingfish and his Realm: The Life and Times of Huey P. Long. The Kingfish and his Realm focused on the controversial governor of the state of Louisiana, whom advocated among other issues a radical redistribution of wealth. Hair’s familiarity with Louisiana and its seedy political history serves him well. In Carnival of Fury, Hair displays an ability to illuminate the actions and motivations of a somewhat obscure yet significant African American in Fin de Siecle New Orleans. Despite a lack of extensive records, Hair is able to construct a coherent concise history of Robert Charles and the racial climate of New Orleans roughly from 1890-1900. Noting the economic, political, and social trends of the time, Hair extrapolates the sensibilities of New Orleans citizens’ black, Creole, and white.

As result of few traditional sources, Hair was forced to research Robert Charles and the New Orleans race riot beginning from its conclusion, thus, tracing Charles’ steps in reverse. Utilizing a variety of sources, much of the racial climate is presented through Hair’s extensive use of New Orleans’ daily newspapers such as the Picayune and the States. Additionally, sources from both Mississippi and Louisiana’s public and state archives provided evidence of the events surrounding Robert Charles. In compiling such resources, Hair illustrates deftness with the material and a skill for interpreting historical evidence.

Perhaps, the most challenging aspect of a book of Hair’s subject matter is the historian’s responsibility to interpret historical data. Hair attempts to account for the racial and social biases inherently present in much of the historical documentation. Like many historians before him, Hair discovers the character of Robert Charles to be neither the savage barbarian nor the saintly freedom fighter that differing historical evidence presents (obviously more emphasis on Charles “savagery” exists) but rather a individual inhabiting a middle ground capable of both sin and saintliness, “Neither is this biography of Robert Charles intended to portray him as an Afro American Richard the Lion-Hearted; he was a very ordinary man in many respects, and would most probably have spent his life in anonymity, had not a particular situation developed on a New Orleans street on July night in 1900, in his thirty-fourth year”, (xiii). Hair carefully traces Robert’s steps nearly two decades before his history making actions, illustrating to the reader the process through which the Robert Charles of history came to be.

The reliability of Hair’s evidence is carefully presented. For example, one the most telling moments concerning this issue in the text focuses on Charles’ girlfriend Virginia. Virginia, one might assume would provide evidence defending Charles’ character. However, Hair goes to great lengths to point out the social and racial constraints that prevented Virginia from presenting Charles’ characters honestly, “Virginia Banks said what she had to say in order to protect herself. Possibly, her relationship with Robert Charles had not always been smooth, but her narration of a three-year reign of terror at his hands was obviously given for effect,” (134). Moreover, Hair’s character judgments concerning other individuals involved in Charles’ tale seems rather even handed. Instead of condemning Judge Chrisman for racial views that today would and should be condemned, Hair points out the merits of the judges actions and opinions in the context of the historical period, “Judge Chrisman was no Print Matthews type southern liberal. He had been a colonel in the Confederate army and believed in the racial dogmas of his day … But Chrisman also believed that black people deserved the protection of law. Considered in the light of his time and place, he was a fair, sensitive, and thoroughly decent man,” (61). Nor does Hair act the apologist pointing out the social and racial views of many of the event's participants.

Cleverly, Hair spends many pages laying the groundwork for the political, social, and racial climate of New Orleans during the 1890’s. The depression of the 90’s did little to ease tensions between races. Moreover, many poor whites tended to lose jobs to industrious African Americans willing to work for lower wages, in worse conditions, providing fewer complaints than their white counterparts. In addition, Hair successfully illustrates the countervailing social forces present in turn of the century New Orleans. The rise of Jazz infected New Orleans and provided both whites and blacks pleasure and controversy, since many upper class and middle class African Americans and whites disproved of the new musical form. Also, the presence and legality of cocaine among the population leant itself to the blistering mood of New Orleans at the time. Politically, the disenfranchisement of African Americans served to increase indignance toward the white political establishment. Hair illustrates the intersection of racial lawlessness with the story of Print Matthews and his untimely demise.

Carnival of Fury also illustrates the cyclical character of race relations in the United States. The “aftershocks” of Charles’ actions reverberate around the entire country. Hair points to the unity among southerners as they rally around New Orleans in its time of need, threatening “outside” agitators like Miss Jewitt with death. As with more recent riots in the United States, violence, resulting from the Charles’ incident, poured out into the northern areas and cities. Also, Carnival of Fury does well to display the fears (surprising to this twenty first century reader) of the New Orleans politicians and policeman who feared a massive slaughter of African Americans if they failed to protect several of the accused and Charles’ body itself. Hair successfully engages the reader with an accessible and intriguing work.

However, Hair’s work does suffer from some weaknesses. As a biography, Hair’s work does well to explain Robert Charles and his actions. However, because of racial and societal pressures, Hair has difficulty illustrating the importance of Charles’ actions on the African American community. Concerning New Orleans’ African American attitudes toward Charles, a clear and decisive opinion is hard to extrapolate from the evidence presented. Moreover, while Hair provides ample evidence of white opinions and to some extent African American judgments, he does little in regard to Creoles. Creoles made up a significant population in New Orleans, yet Hair seems to mention them more in passing than as central figures. Surely, such individuals must have been affected by Charles actions. Also, much of the evidence concerning poorer whites is not present, rather Hair (he also acknowledges this) relies on the opinions and attitudes of the daily papers which tended to favor the upper classes.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License