Kirkus Reviews QR Code
TO POISON A NATION by Andrew Baker


The Murder of Robert Charles and the Rise of Jim Crow Policing in America

by Andrew Baker

Pub Date: June 15th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-62097-603-6
Publisher: The New Press

An account of racial violence in 1900 New Orleans reveals a complex system of institutional racism.

Bates College history professor Baker tells the multilayered story of Robert Charles, who shot a White police officer and later died in a shootout with police. The book is a nuanced history of a Black man unable to improve his status in a racist world who was ultimately no longer willing to cower to White hostility. Charles, writes the author, was “conceived in slavery,” the son of sharecroppers with little education. After an altercation while working as a railroad laborer in Mississippi, he fled and joined the wave of laborers who left rural areas for the big city, New Orleans. Escaping not just poverty, but also the horrendous violence of Reconstruction-era Mississippi, where White terrorism was common, Charles “reached a city on the edge, suspended between a tumultuous and disappointing history and dreams of a remarkable future.” The populous former slave-market hub was a commercial capital, and the corrupt local government often caved to business concerns. All the while, racial tensions simmered. “Emancipation was a red-hot torch in the social powder keg,” writes Baker, “as struggles over the meaning of black freedom made New Orleans the most dangerous city in postwar America.” Violence erupted in July 1900, when Charles—then involved in the International Migration Society, which helped Blacks relocate to Liberia—resisted police interrogation as he waited outside a girlfriend’s apartment building with his friend. Riots shook the city for days, killing at least 28 people and culminating in Charles’ lynching, an event that served as a launching pad for the police force to reinforce and extend its extreme measures against Black citizens. In an intricate narrative, Baker also traces into the 20th century other examples of police brutality and vigilantism in the city.

A sturdy addition to the literature on the early period of the Jim Crow era.