Atlanta and Jackson are among cities with powerful museums dedicated to the long and still incomplete struggle by African Americans for equal rights, and there’s another major museum in the nation’s capital.
A stunningly powerful memorial and museum to the victims of lynching opened just the other day in Montgomery, Alabama.
And New Orleans?
We have impressive shrines to fish and to insects and to World War II. We honor the visual arts and jazz in well-curated museums, and we worship the gods of sport in massive arenas. We have some small, household-sized exhibits of African-American art and artifacts — though one of them, the African-American Museum in Tremé, has been struggling for years to reopen. And there are terrific scholarly resources in the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center and Tulane’s Amistad Research Center.
But our lack of a major museum focused on African-American history and culture has always seemed anomalous to me, both because most New Orleans residents are of African heritage and, from a crassly economic perspective, because we are a city so dependent on tourism drawn to our dynamic Afro-Caribbean culture.
Have we missed the moment? With all these other museums, is there anything left for New Orleans to say?
Guided by Senegalese scholar Ibrahima Seck, John Cummings’ fascinating and quirky evocation of slave life at the Whitney Plantation in Edgard is an hour’s drive upriver. Cummings doesn’t apologize for going rural: “Plantations are where the slaves were,” he said in a recent phone call, and he’s right. Agricultural interests — above all, cotton and sugar farmers — were the driving force behind slavery.
But the atrocity was institutionalized in another form in New Orleans: the slave pens where Africans held in bondage were auctioned like cattle.
Suppose New Orleans were to make that grim heritage — slave markets — the point of departure for a world-class museum documenting the inhuman horror of chattel economics, the way families were torn apart, parents separated, children wrenched from a mother’s arms never to be seen again.
It would be a way once and for all to have done with the silly “lost cause” myth of Southern chivalry, the gauzy “Gone with the Wind” version of a history that is in fact sadistic and repulsive.
We would be doing as Germany has done with the Nazi death camps now open to the public: making an evocation of the slave trade an act of public atonement, unblinking in its forthrightness. A museum or memorial to slaves and the market in human flesh that was centered in New Orleans could be as blunt as the Cambodians have been about historical crimes against humanity committed under Pol Pot.
I am not a historian, nor am I African American. It’s for others to shape a museum of slavery and determine how and where to center it. And so I have been raising the issue with scholars and activists better qualified than I am for this discussion.
As Seck advised in a recent conversation, crimes against humanity must be confessed — fully acknowledged — before there is any chance of healing. “To operate on a rotten part of the body, you have to cut it all out,” he said.
Seck endorses the idea of showing both the horror of slavery — the shackles, the conditions in which the captives lived and the sadistic ways in which they were worked — but also the ways in which African Americans “contributed to making of culture and how this New Orleans culture came to define American culture.”
Might the brutal details of bondage be too traumatizing for some people, especially for African-American children? “There’s no hiding,” Seck said. “Tell the story like it was.” He sees education as the only path toward real freedom for black Americans. And he believes historical truth, however painful, is essential to education.
Educator André Perry agreed: “People should experience a symbolic representation of history that explains how the terrorism by white Americans contributed to inequalities in local and global markets,” he told me in a recent email. “Understanding and education prevents present and future atrocities. I balk at the idea that a memorial of this sort is too painful. Try living with the consequences of the slave trade, Jim Crow segregation and de facto discrimination, which African Americans do every day.”
Tulane historian Lawrence Powell supports the idea that slave markets might be an appropriate way into the topic for New Orleans:
“A monument to the slave trade is long overdue,” said Powell, author of “The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans,” a decisive and perennially popular account of New Orleans’ early years. “Antebellum New Orleans was to the interstate slave trade what H2O is to life: the key to it all.
“More enslaved people from the Upper South moved through the city’s slave pens en route to the region’s cane and cotton fields than were brought to the entirety of North America during the Atlantic slave trade.”
And where might that monument be placed?
“The trade was so ubiquitous here that it’s hard to single out any one place,” Powell said by email. In Richmond, Virginia, another big market, the slave trade was hidden away. In New Orleans, he said, “It hid in plain sight. It was as if the town reveled in it.”
Indeed, there were no fewer than 52 slave markets in New Orleans, according to research compiled by Erin Greenwald, formerly with the Historic New Orleans Collection and now with the New Orleans Museum of Art. Greenwald has been a mainstay in ongoing efforts to erect markers memorializing slavery and the slave trade. She curated the Historic New Orleans Collection’s 2015 exhibit, “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808-1865.” And she co-authored, with Texas scholar Jonathan Rothman, an eloquent editorial on the city’s obligation to face up to its slave heritage.
The work on signage at locations pertinent to this history is being pursued by the New Orleans Committee to Erect Historic Markers on the Slave Trade, chaired by Freddi Williams Evans, author of the book “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” and Luther Gray, the Bamboula 2000 percussionist who co-founded the Congo Square Foundation (now called the Congo Square Preservation Society).
Separately, the Tricentennial has spawned a Cultural and Historical Committee chaired by Historic New Orleans Collection leader Priscilla Lawrence and Sybil Morial, widow and mother of New Orleans mayors Dutch and Marc Morial. A subcommittee chaired by Greenwald is called the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker and App Project. It will place a half-dozen plaques in Faubourg Marigny, the CBD, and the French Quarter. The committee is also creating an app-based walking tour focused on the history of the slave trade in New Orleans. Both the plaques and the app will be unveiled in the next two to three months, Greenwald said.
For a deep dive into the day-to-day horror of the slave markets in New Orleans, readers can turn to Harvard historian Walter Johnson’s “Soul by Soul,” a harrowing book that puts faces on the abstraction called slavery. Johnson brings atrocity alive, both as a lived experience and an overarching economic system. Another penetrating analysis is provided in Cornell historian Edward Baptist’s more recent “The Half Has Never Been Told.”
Johnson supports the campaign to put up markers to slavery in New Orleans but sees room for more. “I think of the whole city,” he said in an email exchange, “and really the whole Mississippi Valley — the levees, the cleared fields, the plantations, even the woods and swamps — as a monument to enslaved and free Africans and African Americans, their strength and skill, their indomitable will to survive and even, sometimes, to thrive.”
That sense of a memorial as big as all outdoors is in line with the thinking behind the Whitney Plantation and other experiential approaches to summoning up a haunted past.
“Museums don’t get it,” said Whitney Plantation owner Cummings. “You walk in the building and see it on the TV screen — all very interesting, but you’ve got to get out to where your mind is free and your heart is open.”
Cummings backs the idea of putting markers on all 212 sections of the floodwall between the French Quarter and Poland Avenue to create what he calls a “march to freedom.” Each marker would recall an important moment in the long passage by African Americans from bondage to something more like freedom and someday maybe even full equality.
The 1811 slave revolt would be one such moment. Another, Cummings said in an expansive phone conversation, would center on the 24,700 slaves who enlisted in the Union army when Admiral Farragut sailed into New Orleans in 1862 and freed the city from the Confederacy. Yet another would be the recent acknowledgement by Georgetown University that it owes compensation to descendants of the 272 slaves Jesuits sold to save the institution during a financial crisis in 1838.
Jacques Morial contributed to the conversation by exhorting readers to remember that people have been working for years toward a proper reckoning with slavery. He offered a list of those who have taken a stand, ranging from Malcolm Suber of the Take ‘Em Down NOLA group that fought for removal of Confederate monuments, to veteran Freedom Riders who are still among us.
“And don’t forget Rip Lazard,” Morial hastened to add.
Lazard has long nursed the dream of mooring a replica of the U.S. Revenue-Marine cutter Dallas at the Governor Nicholls Street Wharf, now relinquished by the Port of New Orleans to city control.
In 1820, 19 years before 53 captive Africans aboard the slave ship Amistad famously and successfully revolted against the crew delivering them to sugar plantations, the Dallas intercepted the slave ship Antelope. Some 280 captives were aboard, more than 100 of whom were eventually allowed to return to their homeland.
Lazard said he expects the cost to approach $35 million and, with that in mind, he hopes to get the U.S. Navy to embrace the project. Plus, he said, “We’re at a junction in time when it’s possible to get international funding. Even Haiti has diamonds and gold in the ground.”
One aspect of the whole Antelope saga that intrigues Lazard: the attorney who fought successfully for the right of the captives to return to Africa was none other than Francis Scott Key, a slave-owner who eventually freed his workers, the same Francis Scott Key who wrote the poem later set to music as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (Key, it should be noted, is not without his critics among historians of the slave era.)
But can the slave era be consigned to historical memory, even now, a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation? For writer Lolis Elie, it’s complicated:
“The lack of a slavery museum exemplifies the extent to which our city often treats its African-American citizens, even now, as little more than bond servants,” Elie observed in a recent phone call.
The New Orleans economy is based on tourism, he noted. “It’s an economy rooted in music from West Africa, food that is rooted in West Africa, and historic architecture largely built by slaves.” In Elie’s view, tourism profits from the work of West Africans, Haitians and black New Orleanians, but the tax dollars spent to promote this tourism flow largely from white people to other white people. “If you define slavery as work without profit, you begin to see that a continuum extends from the slave era to the present.”
Carol Bebelle, co-founder and director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, would have us look beyond what she calls our “challenging, divisive present.” In a recent email, she offered these words: “Seeing the past in full detail as a monument or museum to Slavery creates the potential for the crisis of conscience which could help lead us to a point of clarity.
“These details,” she said, “refute sanitized words and conceptual references such as ‘middle passage,’ ‘trans-Atlantic slave-trade’ etc. which, as Ellis Marsalis once said, make slavery sound ‘like a cruise ship vacation.’’’
“Seeing is believing,” Bebelle continued. “These images of wounds, tools of torture, dangerous work and living situations bring to life the nightmare existence of enslaved people of African descent. It also forces the recognition of southerners as the nameless and faceless perpetrators of these crimes against humanity. Finally, it allows for the connection of this inglorious past to the present reality that we face as a state with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
“And perhaps it becomes harder to ascribe this circumstance to poverty, poor education, unemployment, or character deficits. When the past has eyes,” she said, “the violations and wounds you can see for yourself.”
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.