Sighting The Sites Of The New Orleans Slave Trade

Nov 5, 2015

This story is part of TriPod: New Orleans at 300. Tripod moves beyond the familiar themes of New Orleans history to focus on forgotten, neglected, or surprising pieces of the city's past to help us better understand present and future challenges. This story visits physical landmarks that bear witness to the city’s role in the national slave trade.

There are some hotels in the French Quarter and Central Business District that have rooftop pools. If you do know this, you do one of two things: you recognize that you’re not a guest at that hotel, and you do not go swimming in that pool. Or, you realize that it’s not difficult to walk through the lobby, take the elevator to the roof, and spend the day poolside, free of charge.

A lot of people choose option B, and they do it at the Omni Orleans on Chartres and St. Louis streets. But what these people might not know is that before the Omni Hotel, there was the St. Louis Hotel. And slaves were sold there.

Historic New Orleans Collection historian and curator Erin Greenwald stands in front of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, which was constructed in the 1950s. “This site has the longest lineage in the history of the domestic slave trade here in New Orleans,” she says. “People were bought and sold under the domed rotunda of a fabulously decked out hotel. There wasn’t anywhere else in the country where human beings were bought and sold in such luxurious environs.”

Greenwald’s talking about the domestic slave trade, meaning the sales and movements of peoples within the borders of the United States.

Slave Auction; ca. 1831; ink and watercolor
Credit The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1941.3

In 1808, the federal government ended the transatlantic and international slave trade, which meant no more shipments of the enslaved from the Caribbean or Africa. Just a few years before that, the Louisiana Purchase opened up all this new land. So as the international slave trade is abolished, there is simultaneously a huge demand for labor in the Deep South.

“When this 1808 law passes, you start seeing this stream, and then outpouring, of people being forcibly moved from the upper to the lower South” explains Greenwald. “And New Orleans becomes the nexus of that trade. It’s the largest slave market in America during the antebellum period.”

Close to a million people make up this forced migration that occurred within the U.S. in the first half of the 19th Century. They came down south by boat, by rail, by stagecoach, and the most unfortunate marched for months from Virginia down the Natchez Trace. The impact goes way beyond those who were bought and sold. Greenwald gives the example of a single slave ship.

“You have 110 people on a ship coming from Baltimore whose lives are forever changed. And then consider all of the people related to those 110 who were left behind. The slave trade caught a lot of people up in its web and that web destroyed tens of thousands of people's lives and communities.”

Once they arrived in New Orleans, many that came by boat were sold before even walking off the deck of the ship. But most people were brought to what’s called a slave pen. In 1829, it became illegal for slave traders to house slaves in the French Quarter. So these pens popped up on the borders.

A Slave-Pen at New Orleans -- before the Auction; wood engraving from Harper's Weekly, January 24, 1863
Credit The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1958.43.24

On the corner of Chartres Street and Esplanade Avenue there now sits a residential home built well after the Civil War. But this site was a slave pen, with a showroom, like an auto dealership, and a yard where enslaved people would sleep, exercise and cook.

These pens were basically jails. And the eating well and physical activity was all so that the traders could sell their property -- humans -- at the highest possible profit. Greenwald walks through the process of a sale.

“A planter comes in with a shopping list, meets with the trader, and then has the individuals line up. And the planter would come and inspect and question the individuals that were prospective purchases.” 

J. A. Beard and May auction notice for a Valuable Gang of Georgia and South Carolina Field Hands; New Orleans: Bulletin Print, 1856
Credit The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2014.0371

There is no plaque on the wall that surrounds this private property. There are historic plaques around the city, like the one on Press Street that honors where Homer Plessy walked into the "whites-only" train car, for example. Or the one that commemorates the St. Charles Streetcar line in Lee Circle. Well, there are 52 places in New Orleans where slaves were sold. And of those 52, there are only two signs in the city of New Orleans that deal with the slave trade.

“The official signage is on West Bank of the Mississippi River in today’s Algiers Point along the levee, and it recognizes that location’s role in transatlantic slave trade” says Greenwald. “On this side of the river there’s one plaque. It’s on Maspero’s Restaurant, across street from the St. Louis Hotel, and claims to be the site of Maspero’s Exchange. That is not correct!”

The sign claims that Maspero’s Restaurant was the site of Maspero’s Exchange, but that was actually across the street, where the St. Louis Hotel is. So of the 52 sites on the East Bank, only one is marked. And it’s wrong.

The house on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and Chartres St. is a private residence. But Greenwald says there are many options for marking things. “There are plenty of signs in other areas of the city that are private residences that deal with topics that are easier to digest. When you look at the map of this area, this whole block was home to slave traders and slave pen. So if the city was interested in marking that trade, they certainly could put something in the neutral ground here on Esplanade Avenue.”

And yet, there is no such sign.

“It’s much easier for people to get behind celebratory history than to get behind this dark and extremely painful history,” she says.

A few museums have popped up, like the Whitney Plantation, devoted entirely to slavery in the U.S. South. And there are civil rights museums around the country. But there’s a difference between experiencing a public marker and a museum. One’s voluntary.

The only people that are seeing what is in the civil rights museum are the people going to the civil rights museum, as opposed to the tourist from Alabama, say, who’s walking through the French Quarter.

Greenwald says even places that do give guided tours are leaving this stuff out. “This is something that should happen. We should be recognizing all of our history and not simply the parts that look nice for tourists. This is who we are.”

Mapping the Slave Trade in New Orleans, created in 2015 by The Historic New Orleans Collection for the exhibition Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Tradebase map: Norman's Plan of New Orleans and Environs 1849; hand-colored engraving by Shields and Hammond, engravers; Benjamin Moore Norman, publisher
Credit The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Boyd Cruise, 1952.29

Imagine a plaque outside The Omni Hotel, acknowledging the history of slave auctions on site, and whether locals would still sneak in to take a dip. If there were 50 other plaques downtown to mark these places of the slave trade, imagine what else we might think about.

TriPod is a production of WWNO — New Orleans Public Radio, in collaboration with the Historic New Orleans Collection and the University of New Orleans Midlo Center for New Orleans studies. Special thanks to Evan Christopher for the theme music.

Catch Tripod on the air Thursdays at 8:30 a.m., and Monday afternoons on All Things Considered.