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1850s - The French Quarter’s not-so-secret slaving history

The French Quarter means wrought-iron balconies, brazen music, and giddy debauchery for the million or so tourists who will come to New Orleans today. It’s probably a lot of fun if you’re a booze hound and/or into really good music. And even if you’re not, hey, there’s pretty architecture and people-watching galore.

The French Quarter is a weird fragment of a place, a “Social Artifact” in the words of geographer Richard Campanella. Even after a touristification process in the 1990s, its 97 blocks look, sound, and smell different from the rest of the United States. That’s mostly because the French Quarter is fossilized slave society, a reminder of a time when a booming city celebrated on the backs of plundered bodies.

“Because of where New Orleans is on the Mississippi River,” according to Mary Niall Mitchell, a history professor at the University of New Orleans, the city “became the hub of the slave market — the biggest slave market in the deep South.” Over 3,000 steamboats annually brought tons of cotton, sugar, and other slave-produced goods down the Mississippi to what was by the 1850s America’s second-busiest port. New Orleans was by some measures the wealthiest city in the Western Hemisphere in the years before the Civil War, with gaslit boulevards bisected by electric streetcars. There were 17,000 slaves in the city in 1850, among a population of just over 100,000.

Even during this boom the French Quarter still operated like a village where, according to Mitchell, “people knew who belonged to whom.” This meant something in particular in the antebellum South: society as surveillance. In “Freedom on the Move,” a University of New Orleans project, Professor Mitchell and her colleagues mapped the New Orleans Daily Picayune classifieds for runaway slaves from the year 1844. The ads are remarkable:

$5 REWARD — Ran away…negro girl HARRIET ANNE — She is about 14 or 15 years old, stout and thick, good teeth, and a mark on her eyebrow caused by a burn.

$25 Reward — RAN AWAY since the 30th June last, the girl MARY, a dark griffe, 5 feet 4 to 6 inches high, is well shaped and good looking, skin rough, handsome teeth, lips tolerably thick, …She is about 18 to 20 years old and is supposed to be harbored in the 2d Municipality.

The project frames these ads not as notices of missing property, but as points of flight. The classifieds record a moment in time and space when an enslaved person took action to free their body from bondage.

An 1856 map of New Orleans. The blue section is the French Quarter. To its west, in red, is the Second

But the ad calling for Mary’s return raises an interesting question: If a person escaped from a life of servitude in the French Quarter, where would they escape to? They wouldn’t have to go far. Canal Street separated the French Quarter from the Second Municipality. The Second was growing rapidly, with incoming “American” merchants from Virginia and New York having to build new homes when they got off the steamboat. These newcomers were oblivious to the social norms of New Orleans, and due to the booming economy, they were willing to pay for labor. Even if the people they were paying were runaway slaves.

“We see these enslaved people who are fugitives, but they haven’t really left,” explains Mitchell. “There is money to be made” in the booming city, and many slaves “have a skill which they can use to make money.” According to Mitchell, those fleeing slavery don’t have to run very far. “A significant number of slaves fled within the city.”

It was not necessarily clear to the newcomers who was or was not a slave. Skin color was not a perfect (or even very good) approximation for slave status. This was true throughout the South but particularly in New Orleans, where about two of every five African-Americans in the city were free people of color. And race was never as simple as black or white. Even before the war, a slave wasn’t defined by their complexion, but by their relationship to an owner. If an enslaved person ran across town to where nobody knew them, they might be able to pass as free.

By slipping through the cracks between Creole French and American English societies, slaves could escape just hundreds of feet away from their ex-owners’ homes. Creole landowners viewed Americans as nouveau riche foreigners, trying to make a quick buck off their laborers’ hard work. The Americans saw the French speakers as unpatriotic and averse to manufacturing. By exploiting the gaps between these two communities, slaves could sneak across town and pass as a free person of color. In the antebellum South, a person could use ignorance as their best disguise.

Before the Civil War, thousands of people came to New Orleans in search of profit and adventure. These individuals encountered a city wholly exotic, with languages, customs and skin colors different than anything farther north and east. Thousands more were brought to the city against their will — the embodiment of another man’s profit. Their encounters with New Orleans, which we know from Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, could lead to punishment much more easily than to escape.

A lithograph of slave sales in the Hotel St. Louis rotunda. The St. Louis was demolished in 1915, and the Omni Hotel stands in its place. Staying there tonight would cost $239, or about eight bucks in 1850 money.

The French Quarter’s premier hotel back then was the St. Louis, a three-floor palace that could host 600 guests of proprietor James Hewlett. “Under Hewlett the St. Louis reached its meridian of splendor,” wrote John Kendall in his 1922 History of New Orleans. The Crescent City had its first Mardi Gras celebrations in the hotel’s columned exhibition halls. Just steps away, under the hotel’s dramatic 88-foot tall rotunda, slaves were auctioned. If one of them was able to look out the window, they would be able to see brick mansions and iron balustrades — the French Quarter, full of giddy anticipation of the day’s festivities.



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