An Unmonumental History

By Claire Davenport

On St. Louis Street in the heart of New Orleans’s Historic District lies the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel. Women in sunglasses clutching expensive purses step in and out of the hotel’s frosty lobby, and a man in a suit saunters through the glass front door. As they leave, they pass a small plaque on the outside of Omni that labels it “One of America’s Historic Hotels.” What many of its wealthy guests do not know, is that the Omni claims the title ‘historic’ because it was once the St. Louis Hotel, the site of the most decadent and notorious slave auction in New Orleans.

In the early nineteenth century, New Orleans hosted the largest slave market in the country. In his book Soul by Soul, Harvard Historian Walter Johnson describes how the slave market was a southern institution. In his words, “the planter class imagined who they could be by who they could buy.” By 1854, the City Treasurer’s Census of Merchants listed 19 slave trading yards in the city. In some of these trading yards 50 to 100 people were forced to live in a space the size of a home lot. As the city grew off the backs of the slaves, the trade expanded.

At the St. Louis Hotel, when people were placed on the auction block, they were dressed up in mock finery, and buyers could conduct business under a domed rotunda with a cocktail in hand. This was known as the City Exchange.

St. Louis and Chartres Streets were home to multiple slave auctions, including the Maspero Slave Exchange, later renamed Hewlett’s Exchange when the building changed owners. A saloon and coffee shop in one, this building now hosts a restaurant named after the exchange itself; Pierre Maspero’s Restaurant. The restaurant’s website mentions nothing about the slave trade that place took place within its walls.

Despite the horrors that took place at the Omni Hotel, Pierre Maspero’s, and thousands of other locations and sites throughout the city; there are few plaques, monuments, or other markers in the city to memorialize this dark period in Louisiana’s past.

In his two-part piece Cityscapes of New Orleans, Tulane Professor Richard Campanella says, “A visitor to New Orleans arriving any time prior to the Civil War could not help but witness an entire cityscape of slave trading. Visitors today, however, would be hard-pressed to find any substantial, physical evidence remaining.”

The tourism industry is also lacking in this respect. A common walking tour usually includes a bite of food at a jazz cafe and photos outside of haunted hotels; skirting the issue of slavery and racism in New Orleans. While the city is lacking monuments and plaques commemorating the slave trade and its horrors, it certainly has no shortage of monuments and plaques commemorating Confederate leaders, Reconstruction-era Conservatives, and other white male supremacists.

“This has always been about psychological war,” explained activist, poet, and founder of the grassroots movement, Take Em’ Down NOLA, Michael ‘Quess’ Moore. Take Em’ Down NOLA is a grassroots movement that has been influential in lobbying the government to take down the monuments,

While many monument supporters argue that they are an important reminder of the cities past, or that the men that these monuments commemorate still deserve to be remembered for their positive achievements, it has become clear that these monuments were erected not to celebrate but to threaten.

“Every time there was a victory or gain on behalf of the African American community in New Orleans, there always was a rebuttal in terms of the Confederate flag, or monuments being put up” Moore explained.

These injustices did not go unnoticed. Recently, a movement to take down these oppressive monuments swept through the South, and New Orleans was no exception.

**

When the controversy over the monuments blew up, it was the buzz on the streets. People flocked to libraries and research centers to read up on the history behind these monuments. Research institutions had to learn how to handle these inquisitors while maintaining their apolitical structures.

One such institution that has been handling lots of question concerning the monuments is the Williams Research Center, a two-story brick structure lying back on Chartres Street. The Williams Research Center is part of the greater Historic New Orleans Collection,which is home to some of New Orleans’s most extensive research and historical documents.

As the Williams Research Center has fielded questions and inquiries from visitors about the confederate monuments and their history, the historians who work there have handled the controversial topic with discretion

“At this point, we as an institution haven’t addressed the monument removal at all, it’s hard when an issue is this politically relevant today,” explains Rebecca Smith, the head of reader services at the Center.

“We give people the information we have,” she explains. “But all sources have bias. Everybody has bias. Your personal lived experience means that you are bringing bias to the table.”

The Williams Research Center struggles with strategies to remain impartial, and also how to guide its readers to historically accurate sources. The blow-up seemed to come out of nowhere. However, the controversy was just a culmination of a very long battle.

“There have been fights for over thirty years to take the monuments down,” explains Moore. “I think it was just a matter of time, it took a long time for America to catch up, and for the South to catch up for that matter.”

Despite the long and often vicious struggle in New Orleans for removal, when it did happen it seemed to occur almost overnight. The four statues in question were spread out around  New Orleans at the time of their removal. The most visible was that of Robert E. Lee, which sat on the circle where the streetcar line loops from the Business Quarter towards the downtown French District. However, the Battle of Liberty Place Monument, an unsightly obelisk that sat hidden by the Mississippi River was probably the most notorious symbol of white Supremacy. It was erected to honor the Democratic White League, a racist organization that attempted to seize control of the Louisiana government in 1974.

Moore thinks four monuments is not nearly enough. “When Mayor Landrieu hopped on the mic saying he wants 4 monuments removed, we said ‘okay that’s cute but you know there are actually dozens.’”

It is clear that New Orleans, while it is making progress, still has a long way to go.

**

Now the question becomes; what next? Tulane professor, archivist, and specialist in early American history, Emily Clark attempts to answer this question.

Professor Emily Clark is an amiable woman, with a frank manner of speech distinctive to history professors. Surrounding her desk are squat boxes filled to the brim with archival documents. This is Professor Clark’s main resource for historical investigation.

        “We as historians look at all sorts of evidence,” she explained, leaning back slightly in her worn chair. “My preference is to look at evidence that is not trying to tell a story, that is–non-narrative evidence.” This is where the archives come in. Professor Clark sifts through pages of documentation to slowly reconstruct the lives of people who lived in New Orleans in the Antebellum era.

        Clark knows how much slavery is a part of the city’s identity. What frustrates her is that most of the citizens of New Orleans know this, too. It’s the tourists that are left unaware.

“The people who live here, in this majority African American city, they not only know the joyful cultural past, but they know that the city was built on people captured and forced to work here,” she explains.

By refusing to acknowledge the lives and of the ancestors of thousands of its own citizens, and the founders of its culture, New Orleans is living in denial.

**

Berlin has an intriguing way of commemorating those who were murdered during the Holocaust under Nazi-era Germany. In front of particular houses, paving stones are slightly raised. They are called “stolperstein” which translates literally to ‘stumbling block.’ When you look down on these raised paving stones, you see the names of those who lived in the adjacent house, and you learn that they were a family that was deported during the Holocaust.

“You literally can’t walk the streets without confronting this history,” Professor Clark explains.

While New Orleans probably won’t be able to add any stumbling blocks to its streets, there are many other ways New Orleans could work to commemorate its history, and to preserve its true identity. Professor Clark suggests plaques.

“If you had a plaque downtown that said: ‘Anyone who was anyone in early New Orleans society owned slaves, from Bienville to the Ursuline nuns’, that would be a huge improvement!” Professor Clark stated. “I’m here for telling the whole story, I am not for just striking names.”  

Moore also believes that a lot more needs to change.

“The tourism industry feeds off the people of the city,” he exclaims, “If America is truly a democracy, than the history that is told about New Orleans and the symbolism in the city should reflect who the people are and how they have contributed to this culture.”

“I would love to see all the names changed,” Moore continued. “I think it would do wonders for the psyche and esteem of the people who live here. When you look at who streets and buildings are named after, it doesn’t make sense. When you look at the history of what created this city it wasn’t Carrollton or Claiborne, it wasn’t Andrew Jackson for damn sure, it was my ancestors and ancestors of other black people who built this city.”

What will be most telling in the future is not what New Orleans does with the monuments we see but what the city does with the monuments we don’t see.

Claire Davenport is a senior at Tulane University, majoring in English and International Relations.

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