Chaos struck the Winter Garden Dance Hall, located at 1015 Gravier Street, on the otherwise peaceful night of November 23, 1919.
While the other 300 or so attendees were “shimmying” along to lively jazz music being played, Robert Halet, 19-years-old, would whisper his last sweet nothings before being hauled off to jail. Halet was flirting with a woman at the front entrance when he heard a racial slur being screamed at him from 16-year-old Ernest Walker, accompanied by what Halet described as a “hostile movement” toward him. Halet reacted as many African American men in 1919 New Orleans would have and defended himself as if his life were on the line. He fired a shot into Walker’s abdomen leaving him “badly wounded” and wheeled off to Charity Hospital.
In an attempt to make their escape to safety, all of the 300 individuals at the Winter Garden fled for one 4 foot wide stairway. However, many were trapped when a 350 pound woman fell and blocked everyone’s way to freedom. Several of those packed in this human pile-up were badly injured and/or died. The police treated the terror-stricken mass with the lack of compassion racism bores as they used night sticks and revolver butts to quiet their cries for help. The Times-Picayune describes this shooting as a “little Halloween misunderstanding” caused by competition over women and Walker knocking Halet out with a pool cue. This account downplays the role racism has to play in this crime, as it ignores the possibility that Walker actually intended to harm Halet. Robert Halet was charged with “shooting and dangerously wounding with intent to kill”. However, I believe his only “intent” was to defend his life from a hate spewing, vicious young man.
The Winter Garden was owned by a man of the name Israel Fields. According to the 1920 New Orleans census, we know he was an African American family man in his mid-30s at the time. This hall was also used as a movie theater, a practice that was typical for the time. More information about the Winter Garden will likely never be known due to the very few records they left behind. However, according to an article about Louis Armstrong’s birthplace done by A Closer Walk, we know that this dance hall was located near “The Battlefield”. This area of New Orleans was located in the block between Gravier and Perdido and was brimming with “the toughest characters in town”. It was incredibly crowded and housed numerous other dance halls, theaters, gambling houses, saloons, etc..
Download to view the original 1919 article:
“Effort To Escape Familiar Bullets Blocks Stairway Several Dusk Dancers Are Injured When Fat Woman,” Times-Picayune, November 24, 1919, Access World News – Historical and Current.
“History of Jazz Dance Halls,” NEW ORLEANS JAZZ CELEBRATION, accessed October 24, 2019, https://www.nojc.org/jazz-dance-halls.
“Louis Armstrong’s Birthplace,” New Orleans Music Map, accessed October 24, 2019, https://acloserwalknola.com/places/louis-armstrongs-birthplace/.