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  • Cierra Chenier

Algiers is very much New Orleans; was often the soil where enslaved ancestors first stepped foot

Here in New Orleans, we’re bound to our neighborhoods. Before Hurricane Katrina, you didn’t have much reason to leave your community -- everything you needed, all of your people were right there. If you were from the 9th Ward, you stayed in the 9. If you were from Uptown, you stayed Uptown. If you were from “cross the river,” you stayed cross the river. To those from the eastbank of New Orleans, the Westbank is jokingly referred to as that foreign part of the city, wayyyy over there, that “isn’t really New Orleans.” However -- a neighborhood across from the French Quarter, resting on the curve of the river shaped Black New Orleans history forever. It was the soil that many ancestors first touched when brought captive to this city. Algiers.

“They didn’t really care about Algiers. This was a part that was basically known for slaves. This was where you quarantine, this is where you broke them in order to be sold.” - Malik Rahim, living legend & lifelong Algiers resident

The story of Algiers ironically dates as far back as the arrival of slavery in Louisiana. Just one year after the founding of New Orleans in 1718, present-day Algiers Point was designated as a plantation and “slave pen” -- consisting of jail-like compounds where enslaved people were held following their kidnapping from West Africa. There they performed forced, free labor until it was time to be ferried across the river to The Quarter, where they were to build this city or be sold off at auction. It’s said that the very name comes from the view of the site from The Quarter -- the hundreds of Black figures seen from across the river reminded the Europeans of Algeria in Africa. Hence, the name Algiers. By 1731, 99% of Algiers’ population was enslaved, making it “the largest concentration of people of African ancestry in the entire region.”

Initially, enslaved people had to live in caves or cabins in the woods before the land was cleared. Algiers’ long history as a plantation then began with Company Plantation, where “the Company did not provide them [enslaved] with enough food and fed them with the food stuffs it could not sell to the settlers or soldiers because they were damaged.” 

The plantation was surrounded by swampland where enslaved Africans held drumming circles, spiritual ceremonies, and even took control of their own freedom as maroons (Africans who escaped enslavement). This area was inhabited by buku maroon colonies, where these brave ancestors learned how to survive the bayou, evade authorities, and stand firm in their resistance. Lifelong Algiers resident and living legend, Malik Rahim, explains that maroons lived by a code -- today's popular, Mardi Gras Indian expression of “Won’t Bow Down” to slavery. “If you were a ‘petit maroon,’ you wouldn’t be gone long. If you were a ‘grand maroon,’ you weren’t coming back” says Rahim. The swamps of the Westbank were also once settled by the man, maroon, and martyr -- Jean Saint Malo.

The plantation soon required additional management for its high population of enslaved Africans. Racist, “historian,” and architect, Le Page du Pratz, was hired as manager of Company Plantation and created new policies based on his dehumanizing views of Black people. In his journal of his time there, Le Page states: “Prudence demands that your Negroes be lodged at a sufficient distance so as not to be inconvenient, however, near enough to perceive what happens among them. [...] not to let your children approach them, which besides the bad air, could never teach them anything good, neither for morals, nor for education, nor for language” and “those who smell the worst are those who are the least Black.” Those drumming circles and voodoo ceremonies were put to a stop under the management of Le Page. Since there’s power when we come together, he felt the need to stop “the assemblies of the Negroes” in fear of “damage to the Colony” by revolt. He claims to have prevented a revolt after overhearing a group of enslaved people (7 men, 1 woman) conspiring to seize New Orleans from the French, years before the historic 1811 Slave Revolt (largest revolt in U.S. history). Le Page had them convicted and then executed.  

Near the plantation was a powder magazine located at the site of current Powder Street in Algiers Point. This building was designed to store explosive gunpowder, but also served as the Europeans’ last resort given the enslaved people that outnumbered them would one day revolt. “That was their last defense” Rahim explains. “If there was a slave rebellion, they’d blow it up.”

Eventually, the Company went bankrupt and the plantation became known as King’s Plantation. By 1804, it became Duverjé Plantation. Where Algiers residents now go to exercise their political power at the Algiers Courthouse, was once the site of the plantation’s “main house.” What are now beautifully constructed homes where Algiers Point’s 81.94% majority-white residents live in this peaceful haven along the river, were once brick slave cabins. Enslaved people were piled into these 24 x 13 foot cabins that once bordered the back of the main house. What is now a playground where kids can play at Delcazal Park, was once the initial burial ground for the “favored slaves” of the Duverjé Plantation.

Algiers eventually became an official part of Orleans Parish. Following the end of slavery in 1865, many of the now freed Black people moved off the plantation and into the outskirts of today’s Algiers and Westbank communities. Algiers’ high Black population was further established with these communities, but just like most New Orleans neighborhoods, was noticeably segregated. A set of railroad tracks physically segregated Algiers Point from the rest of Algiers, dividing the now high white population from the high Black population. This segregation was upheld even in the face of disaster. 

When Katrina hit in 2005, individuals such as Malik Rahim came together, rescued, protected, and shared resources with their neighbors in need. We’ve heard horror stories of what went down during the storm by those that stayed. Some white vigilantes in Algiers Point had other intentions and believed in “defending their community” from “outsiders.” They blocked off designated streets, armed themselves in the name of self-defense, and shot at Black, “non-residents” entering the area. In one case in particular, a white resident made racist statements, “Anything coming up this street darker than a brown paper bag is getting shot,” before and after shooting three Black men who were trying to reach the ferry in hopes of evacuating. 

I find irony in white vigilantes’ “defense” of this community from “outsiders” aka Black people -- a community that only came into existence for the purpose of containing and isolating Black, enslaved people. It speaks to larger issues affecting New Orleans as a whole -- Black New Orleanians being denied access and affordability in neighborhoods that quite literally would not exist without us. 

“You always had that African spirit over here.” - Malik Rahim

The jokes surrounding the Westbank actually trace beyond the construction of the Crescent City Connection bridge in 1954 and run much deeper than just refusing to go “cross the river” because it was far. In 18th through 19th century New Orleans, those on the eastbank classified the Westbank as somewhere you didn’t wanna go. It was that “uncivilized” area across from the original city, where they kept all those Black people -- or as Mr. Rahim puts it, “what they called the land of the Wild Congo N-ggas.” The overwhelming Blackness of the hundreds of enslaved people that were contained here gave the Westbank its negative connotation coming from the other side.

Growing up in New Orleans East, most if not all of my time was spent on the eastbank of the city. I had not yet conceptualized “the Westbank” or what was even considered cross the river at the time. It was only after being uprooted by Katrina and coming to this side that I grew to understand Algiers as an entirely different aspect of New Orleans. In the ways that lineages run deep Uptown and Downtown, I came to know people who rarely paid that toll to cross the bridge -- their families had always been rooted in this area. 

Knowing what I know now and reflecting on Algiers for what it once was, I can only think of this land (and city) through the lens of Black New Orleans. I feel indebted to the stories and contributions that happened here. In the same way the ferry has once taken my daiquiri and I across the river to enjoy food at French Quarter Fest, it's the same journey the ancestors once took against their will, where they met their fate of forced labor or being auctioned, sold, and split from their families forever. From the plantation to the playground, Algiers as we know it quite literally stands on land seeped with the blood of those who lived, slaved, and died here. Despite their stories and contributions being buried in our history -- they, like Algiers, are very much New Orleans.


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