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'Purchased Lives' Exhibit Helps New Orleans Come To Terms With Domestic Slave Trade

courtesy of the Holden Family Collection
Slaves who'd attempted running away were often made to wear collars such as this iron and brass one with bells, dated between 1800 and 1865.

Most Americans hear the phrase “slave trade” and picture ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, with captured Africans chained inside, terrorized and sick. But twice as many people were sold in the domestic slave trade, which forcibly moved over a million people, primarily from the Upper South to the Lower South, primarily over land and on foot.

After the United States outlawed international slave trading in 1808, New Orleans became home to the nation’s largest domestic slave market.

“When you purchased an enslaved person,” says historian Erin Greenwald, “you were making a very serious financial investment. If you were a planter and you were to buy one what’s known as a Prime Number One Field Hand, you might be paying $1,500 in 1850's money, which is about $47,000 in today’s money.”

Erin Greenwald curated the exhibit, Purchased Lives, at the Historic New Orleans Collection. A huge 1849 map of New Orleans dominates the exhibit’s main room. Red dots indicate the over 50 locations where people were bought and sold in large numbers. Greenwald says other southern cities confined the slave trade to a single or building or street. Not New Orleans.

“New Orleans was completely saturated. You know, New Orleans is often discussed as being the queen city, or the king city for cotton. And slavery and cotton go hand-in-hand. So it is a place where cotton is bought and sold, and shipped to and shipped from, and the same is true of the slave trade here.”

Enslaved people were sold in the middle of the business district — what’s now known as the city's Central Business District. They were sold on boats, in French Quarter courtyards, and in the most sumptuous room of the most luxurious hotel in the South, the St. Louis Hotel — where the Omni Royal now stands. There’s no plaque on the façade of today’s hotel to let you know an auction block once existed there. In fact, New Orleans has very few physical markers commemorating this history.

“People’s tendency is to celebrate the past,” says Greenwald. “And so it’s harder, I think, to get a city to commemorate or recognize something negative from the past.”

Part of the difficulty in acknowledging the extent of slavery’s past is coming to terms with how much of our present has been shaped by it. Slavery amounted to breaking up families, and after the Civil War, people wanted to reunite with their sisters and fathers, but they often had no idea where to start looking. So they took a shot in the dark.

“There’s a series of newspapers that come on line — mostly black newspapers, but also some that are affiliated with different churches,” explains Greenwald. “In these newspapers you see these advertisements being placed by people who are looking for family members who were separated from them during slavery. So mothers looking for children that they haven’t seen in 30 years — don’t even know what they look like — but people all over the country placed ads in the city of New Orleans, on the off chance that their relative had been sold in the markets in New Orleans.”

The following were published in the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a newspaper published in New Orleans and distributed to nearly 500 preachers, 800 post offices, and more than 4,000 subscribers.

Dear Editor, Allow me space in your paper to inquire for my mother, Hannah McNear. The last time I saw her was in South Carolina, Pede river. I was a small girl about ten years old when I left her. I was brought to Mobile, Alabama by William Neveal, and from there to Jackson County, Mississippi on Dog river, by one William Griffin. My mother only had two children – a boy and a girl. The boy’s name was John R. Alls. My name was Esther. I went by the name Esther Robinson, and the man that brought me away from South Carolina was Richard Webster. Any information of mother will be thankfully received. Address me at Moss Point, Jackson County, Mississippi, in care of Reverend N Cannon. Esther Austine

Dear Editor, I wish to inquire for my sister, Edna Millsapt, who was carried to Louisiana in 1845 by John Millsapt. She had two children, a boy and a girl. Please address me at Paulding, Jasper County, Mississippi. Spencer Jones

Mr. Editor, I left my people in Greenville, Virginia about 30 years ago. My owner was McMilliam Wright. I was at that time taken away from my mother: her name was Susan Alison. I had a brother Edmond, a sister May, and an uncle named Joe Evoy. Address me at New Orleans, Louisiana care Mrs. Gustave Bertoll, 278 Ursuline Street. Clara Oliver

Dear Editor, I wish to inquire for my father’s people. My grandfather is Dick Rideout, grandmother Peggy Rideout. They belonged to Sam Shaggs, of Maryland, 13 miles from Washington City. They had 16 children – Betty, James, Barbara, Tettee, Rachel, Mary, David, Henderson, Sophia, Amelia, Christian, Ann. My father is Henderson Rideout. He was sold, ran off, was caught and sold to a Negro trader in 1844, who brought him to New Orleans and sold him in Mississippi. I saw Aunt Sophia in 1866, at which time she was living in Claiborne County, Mississippi. My address is Columbia, Mississippi. David Rideout

Literacy was prohibited for many enslaved people, and so these advertisements were read aloud from the pulpits of over 500 churches across the south. For nearly 50 years after the Civil War, well into the 1900's, people continued to place these ads.

Credit Historic New Orleans Collection
Livery coat from the household of Dr. William Newton Mercer; between 1857 and 1865 (conserved 2015); wool with silver and pewter buttons with silk, wool, cotton, and linen lining by Brooks Brothers.

Greenwald leads me to her favorite part of the exhibition.

“This is a section that deals with all the different industries that supported the trade,” explains Greenwald, “and so the banking industry, insurance companies, clothing manufacturers. These two coats are from Brooks Brothers of New York,” she says, pointing. “One is a livery coat and one is a great coat worn by two enslaved men."

The coats hang on mannequins to remind us, says Greenwald, that even the clothing industry greased the wheels of slavery. But our governments also financially benefited.

Greenwald points to an historic tax document that lists the names of people living on one block in the Tremé who could be taxed.

“And the assessor is going out just like an assessor would now and estimating the value of that person’s property so that the city or Parish can then tax that property.

"And the fifth person on this document is Philliet Richaud, and she’s got ‘FWC’ after her name, which means free woman of color. She has a lot measuring 40.77 feet, and that lot and her home is valued at $1,250, and then she has four slaves who are valued at $2,450.”

In other words, Philliet Richaud’s slaves were worth nearly twice as much as her land and her home combined.

I asked, “So the more people one owned, the more taxes one would pay on those people?”

“That’s exactly right,” answers Greenwald.

“So is it fair to say that the wealth of this city has been built in part through taxation on owning other human beings?”

“Absolutely,” Greenwlad answers. “New Orleans in 1840 was largest city in south. It was fourth largest city in the United States, and that was made possible by its role in cotton industry, and you cannot have cotton — to the extent that we had cotton in the United States — without an enslaved labor force in that time period.”

Greenwald says the exhibition tells a huge and difficult story, but she hopes people won’t be too afraid or ashamed to come and understand our collective history. 

Special thanks to actors Pamela Davis-Noland, Harold X Evans, Sherri Marina, and Wil Williams.

Eve Abrams’ story of Purchased Lives is part of a collaboration withLouisiana Cultural Vistas Magazine. A story about the exhibit appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of the magazine and website. The exhibition is on view at the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection through July 18.

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.