Searching Negroes for arms in police station, 1922 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)
In 1831, Nat Turner—who led a band of bondpeople into insurrection in Southampton, Virginia –was executed, quelling what a great many whites thought permanently ended their greatest living Black fear. However, historian Andrew Baker has produced a riveting and page-turning account of how, sixty-nine years later, yet another Black man rose to fame and became, within mere days, a marked target, resulting in the detonation of horrific violence that crossed many racial lines in New Orleans, Louisiana. Adding to the growing scholarship centered on policing, crime, and racial violence, Baker provides a historical key to better understand the panoramic timeline of bloodshed that spilled for racial reasons not only that summer in 1900, but for years and decades to come across and beyond twentieth-century America.
Throughout To Poison A Nation: The Murder of Robert Charles and the Rise of Jim Crow Policing in America Baker reveals a war within a war shadowed by history while probing the dangerous interplay of murder, the archive, and the death of memory. Robert Charles is remembered by some as a “spree killer,” while the implosion of racial violence that played out is often attributed to him by referring to it as the Robert Charles Race Riot. Framed simply as a “race riot” blurs the question of what actually happened that Monday evening, on July 23, as Robert Charles and his roommate sat on some steps, unfamiliar and marked as suspicious to others, awaiting a night out with female friends. Likewise, “race riot” overlooks the modernizing of a new police force that emerged through the summer interaction. Baker expands the optic by integrating varied sources—senate and census records, an impressive array of newspapers, municipal and gubernatorial records, letters, parish death records, criminal court and council archives—allowing readers to understand that Charles was murdered by an enormously powerful system with a wide network of influence.
At the heart of Baker’s seminal work lies the…