The Haunting Memory of the Slave Trade
There is a lingering aura over this city, far beyond the common folklore that we're often associated with. Past the ancient myths and exaggerated stories, there are true occurrences more horrific and repulsive than any overpriced "haunted history tour" could ever thoroughly explain.
New Orleans is regarded as the most haunted city in America, and at one point in history, was also the largest slave port in the nation. Although our past with slavery is rarely discussed, the two are no coincidence. Yes -- there's the vampire stories, creepy cemeteries, and ghost appearances; but the transport, auction, enslavement, and brutalization of human beings surely exceeds every other horrific tale.
Ships packed with enslaved Africans would stop to New Orleans, right along the river where we now attend festivals in Woldenberg Park and watch the Natchez Steamboat float by. Then, even when the transatlantic slave trade was banned in 1808, domestic trade was still prominent. Slaves would be transported from the Upper South to the Deep South for its rapid-growing cotton industry. By 1850, New Orleans' population was 100,000, with 17,000 being enslaved Africans.
Out of the 52 sites in the city where enslaved people were sold, the only correct, historical markers stand at Esplanade and Chartres, and at Algier's Point on the Westbank. Algiers was once King's Plantation, and the site where several enslaved Africans were held in the vile, overpacked conditions of slave pens. There, they were fed only to appear healthy, and then ferried across the Mississippi to the French Quarter for auction.
The Hub of the Domestic Slave Trade
Most cities had areas and streets strictly designated for the sale and transport of enslaved people. In New Orleans however, the entire city (which was primarily the French Quarter at the time) was bustling with the slave trade. The majority of banks and insurance companies were involved in slavery, "private pens" were for the convenience of purchasing a human being by walk-in, coffee houses were networking centers of "exchange," and there was of course public auction; where slaves were "cleaned up" and lined up on auction blocks. There, they awaited the fate of being separated from their families and sold to the highest bidder. Out of the kindness of their hearts (extreme sarcasm), the City Council prohibited "the exposure of Negroes for sale on the sidewalks," due to petitions and complaints of the odors of the unsanitary conditions of the slave pens.
The horrors committed by Madame LaLaurie at The LaLaurie Mansion (see "Horror on Royal: The LaLaurie Mansion") is an extreme case of the brutalities committed against enslaved people. While it is easy to pinpoint that occurrence as evil and despicable, let's not overlook the cruelness of the institution of slavery to begin with. Slavery and its effects are either brushed over or told incorrectly in classrooms, discussions, and politics. In New Orleans, our lack of acknowledgement of our role in slavery is embarrassing, especially for a city that gained its culture from the descendants of those enslaved here. Groups are making continuous efforts to change this, with one result being the NOLASlaveTrade app, which takes you on a walking tour of the most prominent slave sites and stories.
To exclude slavery out of discussions, both in the United States and New Orleans, is flat out irresponsible. It is the elephant in the room that ultimately connects everything together. Several establishments and families accumulated wealth directly from the institution of slavery. Our country and city's economy was, quite literally, built with the blood, sweat, and tears, of enslaved Africans. Everything from New Orleans' neighborhoods, foods, music, language, religion, and traditions are trickled-down effects of slavery and the Africans that were subjected to it.
Our 300 year old city is filled with so much history, all the way down to the banquettes (sidewalks) that we walk on. The memories of trauma, brutality, and enslavement are still engraved in our fabric, it still lingers in our air, and we still share a space with the thousands of souls that were wronged here. When New Orleans is often called a magical place that just draws you in, I take that as no coincidence. There's still some souls here forcing you to listen when this city speaks to you. Let's do them the justice of being heard, and assuring that their stories are never, ever forgotten.