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I reflected, while traversing the Historic New Orleans collection’s latest exhibit, Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865, that seeing the exhibit without experiencing at least a little discomfiture seemed improbable. The space is that emotionally unsettling, and indeed, I haven’t felt as physically uncomfortable in a museum since visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.

Then I wondered if my recent introduction to fatherhood had something to do with my reaction. When you have children, it becomes much easier and palpable to imagine the pain – the worst experience imaginable – of having your offspring ripped from your arms, and Purchased Lives, which delves into the history of the domestic American slave trade, hits you again and again with the fact that in New Orleans, during the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of children were stolen from their parents, in broad daylight, with enthusiastic backing from the public and private institutions of the day.

In the end, I think anyone would be shattered by Purchased Lives. The scar of the slave trade is simply that ugly; no matter who you are, the awful implications are universally appreciable.

Notice for "a Valuable Gang of Georgia and South Carolina Field Hands"; 1856; THNOC

A Slave-Pen at New Orleans-Before the Auction; Harper's Weekly, 1863; THNOC

Touro Infirmary admission book; from 1855 to 1860; courtesy of Touro Infirmary Archives

'Hoeing Young Cotton'; 1865 and 1895; by Samuel Tobias Blessing; THNOC

We don’t hide our love for New Orleans at this website, or our belief that the city is exceptional, a place that possesses singular qualities compared to the rest of the USA, and indeed, world. But we also recognize New Orleans has a long history packed with pain, and in that vein, I’ve never seen such trauma so thoughtfully explored and explained outside of Purchased Lives. It’s a testament to the materials possessed by THNOC, and that organization’s willingness to explore angles of our past that don’t fit the moonlight and magnolia cliche.

The exhibit explores this historical truth: for the first half of the 19th century, New Orleans was the capital of the domestic slave trade. Said ‘industry’ – admittedly an inoffensive term for an offensive practice – flourished here after the international slave trade was outlawed in the USA in 1808.

The reasons why are easy to apprehend: New Orleans was the major port of the then-slaveholding South, and the access point to the river that served as highway into the American interior. While I was dimly aware of this fact even before going to THNOC, the actual implications of what this all meant didn’t become concrete until I walked through the exhibit.

It was a mournful scene indeed. I would have cried myself if I had dared. Solomon Northup, describing the New Orleans slave market in 'Twelve Years a Slave.'

Because slaves could not be brought in from the Caribbean and Africa, they were internally imported from the Upper South—Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, DC—into the expanding plantations of the Lower South—Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

As Purchased Lives makes clear, an entire private sector grew out of this forced human migration, one that did not end until the Civil War (which itself effectively ended 150 years ago almost to the day with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9). House slaves were dressed in Brooks Brothers clothing. Stock trading was predicated on the slave economy. Insurance policies were taken out on slaves, and they were considered taxable income by the state.

Slave transportation became an entire sub-section of the shipping industry. Isaac Franklin, the richest man in the South for much of his life, was also the largest slave trader in New Orleans. His personal fleet included boats dedicated to moving human chattel. In the exhibit, visitors learn that some of the plantations Franklin purchased with his slave trading fortune were eventually turned into modern Angola penitentiary.

What is perhaps most striking about the THNOC exhibit is how it highlights the normalcy of slavery. Visitors see ledger books that were the 19th century equivalent of a New Orleans Yellow Pages; names, addresses and occupations are given, and many of those jobs are titled ‘Slave Trader.’ In another area, one sees collected newspaper classifieds for slaves – a Craigslist that ends with the breakup of parents from children. An early Touro Hospital sign-in book has a column for the owners of visiting slave patients.

The Omni Royal Hotel, which stands at the corner of St Louis and Chartres St, was once the St Louis Hotel. The grand domed entrance of the St Louis once housed one of the busiest slave auction blocks in the country, and up until the 1950s, photos of said block were sold as postcards to tourists.

I could go on, but suffice to say Purchased Lives is, I believe, the most powerful museum exhibition currently on display in New Orleans. It respectfully asks us to examine our past, and while the part of the past it examines is a painful one, it becomes clear said history is but one element of the identity of New Orleans. Understanding that identity is part of appreciating this place, and I left THNOC with a greater desire to learn more about my city.

A powerful description of the slave market in New Orleans is provided in the memoir Twelve Years A Slave, basis of the movie of the same name; author Solomon Northup’s account of the auction block is provided here. Fair warning, it’s a tough read.

For more information on Purchased Lives, including a schedule of lectures and related programming, visit the exhibition’s website.

Our Local Publisher Partners

The Arts Council of New Orleans

The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.

WWNO

WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at WWNO.org.

WWOZ

WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.

PRC

Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.

NOMA

As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

Southern Food

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.

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