In just a few days, much attention will be centered on Chalmette, the unassuming community located in Saint Bernard Parish, just downriver from New Orleans. It was on the hollowed plains of Chalmette that in the winter of 1814-1815, General Andrew Jackson and his motley American group of American troops, which included several hundred free men of color and slaves, handedly defeated the British during the War of 1812. The victory of the Battle of New Orleans was a miraculous one, one which has been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
In the two centuries which have ensued between that battle and today, it has been regularly commemorated by the people of the city and region, many of whom are descendants of those Creole families whose valiant patriarchs fought under General Jackson. Less well-known however is that after the Civil War, a community of free and freed people of color grew up on a portion of the land upon which the fighting had occurred. This small linear community was called Fazendeville, inasmuch as the land was sold to its initial settlers by Jean-Pierre Fazende fils, who had inherited the property from his father. The self-reliant community which began in 1867, eventually included its own schoolhouse, stores, benevolent society halls, and a church. The Fazendeville Road, ran in a straight line from the river levee to Saint Bernard Highway and existed until the 1960s when outmigration and pressure from the National Park Service brought an end to the community.
Among the members of the Fazendeville community was the Charles Family, an industrious and knowledgeable family headed by businessman Homer Milton Charles. Mr. Charles for several decades ran a grocery business, bar, and several pieces of property in the upper section of Saint Bernard Parish. His success gained national attention through his active membership in the National Negro Business League, founded in 1900 by Booker T. Washington. Homer Charles embodied the spirit of the “self-made man,” which was so highly regarded in that Industrial Age.
Homer Milton Charles was born in Saint Martin Parish on 4 July 1861. He was one of thirteen children born to Tréville Charles and Pamelia François. His known siblings were: Célestine (Mrs. John Page), Tréville, Bienville, Praxille, Angélique, Augustin, Mary Cora (Mrs. Victor Minor), Alcide, and Aristide. Two years after his birth, his parents moved to Saint Bernard Parish. His early education came from the local public school and from private tutors. In keeping with the times, like most boys, his schooling was ended at a point and he began working. He was first employed on a sugar farm, where he filled many roles and later began truck farming with his father. It was then that he first felt the spark which launched him into business.
In 1887, at the age of twenty-six, he began a small produce store near the river in a building measuring only nine by nine feet. Early on he determined to provide as good a product and as dependable service as his competitors. He furthered the business by making visits from house to house, until he had gained such success and a patronage as to he purchased a one-horse wagon, followed quickly by two horses and a wagon to meet his demands.
His partner in life and in business was his wife, the former Miss Hester Anderson, who was the daughter of John and Harriet Anderson. She worked for private families, helping to maintain the family household and sometimes providing capital for the family business. Homer and Hester had four daughters: Augusta, Mary, Sadie, and Clara. All of these girls were well educated. Sadie died not long before she was to be graduated from the New Orleans University. Augusta taught for several years in the Fazendeville School, which her father was active in getting established. Mr. Charles also had a son, Homer Milton Charles, Jr., who was born to Clarisse Vienne and was reared in Fazendeville.
Mr. Charles invested in a great deal of rental property besides his store and his home. His home was located on North Peters Street at the edge of the Arabi community. He also owned stock in the Friscoville Realty Company, Bank of St. Bernard, and the World Bottling Company in New Orleans. He was a very active member of the National Negro Business League and traveled each year to its annual convention, wherever it was convened throughout the nation. In August 1909, he sought and obtained permission to add a bar to his business interests, which was situated near the intersection of Paris Road and the Frisco Shell Road. Unfortunately, in 1911, one of his feet was amputated due to blood poisoning. Though posing a new challenge, Charles was undeterred and maintained his businesses with the aid of his wife and very bright young daughters.
Mr. Charles was lauded as a civic-minded businessman who sought the uplift of his community. In 1902, he was active in and presided over the initial meetings of the Fazendeville Educational Association, which supported the establishment of a public school in that community. At that time he was described as “one of the most intelligent and public-spirited colored businessmen” in Saint Bernard Parish. With regard to fraternal interests, he was a member of the Felicity Lodge No. 199, Knights of Pythias; Daughters of Crescent Tabernacle No. 27; and the Progressive Aid Mutual Benefit Association. Mr. Charles and his family were also devoted members of the Catholic Church.
Homer Milton Charles died on Sunday, 21 August 1921 at the age of sixty. He was buried on Tuesday, 23 August 1921, thus bringing an end to a life spent building up “such a reputation of integrity and honesty as to be considered the most responsible Negro citizen in his community by both his people and the white authorities.”
Sources: The New Orleans Item, 3 October 1911, page 3; The Times-Picayune: 26 August 1910, page 4; 8 August 1909, page 19; 15 February 1902, page 6; 21 October 1904, page 4; Clement Richardson, ed., National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race (Montgomery, Alabama: National, 1919), 148; 1870 & 1880 Federal Censuses, Saint Bernard Parish, Tréville Charles household.
Jari C. Honora