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  • Cierra Chenier

300 Strong: New Orleans Over the Years

In 1699, a Biloxi Indian showed French-Canadian Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville a spot on the coast of the Mississippi. Over 20 years later, May 7, 1718 became known as the founding date of New Orleans by Iberville's brother, Jean-Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville.

La Nouvelle-Orléans

Our city was originally a landmass, formed from the Mississippi River depositing amounts of silt over time (the city was not built below sea level -- it sank below sea level after years of soil subsidence). Much like every other city in the nation, Native Americans occupied the land before Europeans "founded" it. The land and its surrounding areas were home to a number of Native tribes such as: the Houmas, Chitimachas, Tunicas, Biloxis, Pascagoula, etc. These tribes cultivated the land, even forming a trade route that connected Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain. Then in 1718, Bienville is credited with founding La Nouvelle-Orléans. The city was established as a French colony and built along the curve of the Mississippi, hence the nickname "Crescent City." After the introduction of European diseases and the Louisiana Purchase (which pressured Natives to sell their land), many Native Americans died out or relocated to surrounding areas.

By 1719, the first 200 enslaved Africans arrived to New Orleans from Senegambia, marking the 14 decades of slavery in Louisiana. New Orleans was initially swamp and marshland, in which enslaved African did everything from clearing the land and planting crops, to building the roadways and levees with their bare hands. When enslaved people violated the rules of Code Noir or ran away and were caught, they were brought before a court and branded with the French symbol of monarchy: the fleur-de-lis. Yes, the same symbol that we all hang in our homes, have on bumper stickers, wear on t-shirts, jewelry, and in representing our beloved New Orleans Saints.

The Great New Orleans Fire

By the mid-1700s, Bienville and them designed Plan de la Nouvelle-Orléans. This was a mapped-out grid of the Vieux Carré (French Quarter), which was all New Orleans consisted of at the time. This grid also included Place d' Armes, what we know today as Jackson Square. Later was the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which was basically a secret agreement in which the French just handed all of Louisiana over to the Spanish. The Great New Orleans Fire struck in 1788, starting on Chartres and made its way towards Burgundy. 856 buildings were destroyed, meaning more than half of the city burned down. Because New Orleans was under Spanish control, the buildings were rebuilt with Spanish-style architecture. So while we still call it the "French" Quarter, the majority of the French architecture diminished after the fire.

The Moors of Spain

One cannot generally say "Spanish-style architecture" without first giving credit to the Moors. The Moors were North Africans that conquered most of Spain and Portugal. Europe was 99% illiterate until the Moors arrived and established universal education. They were Black Muslims that left a legacy of advanced civilization, art, architecture, and centers of learning in Spain. Their concepts, inventions, and in our case, style of architecture, made a huge impact on history. I mention this to say that -- whenever you look at the "Spanish-style" architecture of The Quarter, know that you are looking at Black history. The Moors taught and influenced the Spanish, who then implemented this style of architecture to the newly rebuilt buildings of the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Haiti's Influence

By the time Napoléon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the United States under the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans consisted of a diverse population of whites, enslaved and free Black people, and Native Americans. Then in 1809, the population doubled and was predominately Black due to the Haitian Revolution. Many formerly enslaved peoples fled Haiti and went to Cuba following the revolution. The Spanish then gained control of Cuba, and all of the French Haitians were kicked out of the territory. So, Haitians embarked for the nearest, French-speaking colony: New Orleans. Over 10,000 Haitians arrived to New Orleans and brought along their Creole influences, West African religions, language, traditions, foods.

Resilience Through Oppression

New Orleans continued to grow as a port and the largest slave market in the nation. Slaves were held in inhumane "pens" across the city and were sold for auction in places like the St. Louis Hotel (now the Omni Royal Hotel). Many were sent off along River Road to work on sugar and cotton plantations. Following the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, slaves gained emancipation, but were far from free. We celebrated liberation, only to face hundreds of years of oppression within our community. Not only did Black New Orleanians suffer (and continue to suffer) under Jim Crow segregation laws, voting and housing discrimination, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration -- we were faced with several natural disasters that affected New Orleans as a whole. Before there was Hurricane Katrina, you heard elders talk about Hurricane Betsy, which hit in 1965 and caused severe flooding all over the city. Hurricane Betsy held the title of the worst storm, until Katrina came through in 2005. As we know, Hurricane Katrina caused ultimate destruction, death, and devastation to our city -- especially to Black New Orleans. The breech of the levees was bad enough, but the government response to our disaster was even worse. But, as always, New Orleanians found a way to shake back.

Upon its founding in 1718, New Orleans was never expected to see past 40 years. When Katrina hit, some didn't even believe that we would bounce back. Others asked if there was even a point in trying to rebuild our city, and now they're talking 'bout we'll all be underwater in 100 years due to our position below sea level. If you knew the history of this city and what we've already endured, you'll know that we ain't going nowhere. We were bred from a gumbo of different races, cultures, and ethnic groups, with the influences of Black New Orleanians serving as the foundation for what makes New Orleans, New Orleans. As a city and as a people, we have contributed far too much to ever be counted out. We have survived far too much to ever be defeated.

I am a New Orleans girl, born and raised -- everything that I have ever known and loved is here. In learning my city, I have gained a greater knowledge of myself. I go any and everywhere in life with a chip on my shoulder and some seasoning tucked away, because that's just us. You see this city all in my mannerisms and can hear it all in my speech. I approach every situation with a New Orleans state of mind, meaning no matter what, I know that I'll rise above any obstacle that I'm faced with. Even if you take me out the city, you can never take the city out of me. Today on May 7, 2018, I wish a Happy 300th Birthday to the root of my being and INARGUABLY, the greatest city in the world. #504EVER

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