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Streets and Archives: Slavery and the Spaces of Early New Orleans

In summer 2006, not quite one year after the levees broke, I began my study of slavery in New Orleans. It was not my first time in New Orleans – I grew up there – but the postdiluvian landscape lent a surreal backdrop to the task of archival research. In those days, as many wondered whether there would be a future for black people in that city, I wanted to learn about their place in the city’s past.

In recent years, some scholars of colonialism and slavery have measured the archives and found them wanting. Their piercing critiques caution historians against an uncritical reliance on – and regurgitation of – empirical facts from the archive, a methodology that replicates (and thereby perpetuates) the violence that we ought to critique. They rightly call us to consider the histories of our sources and to speculate about the voices and experiences that have been systematically excluded from the archives. As they note, however, these silences do not persist solely because of the archives and their problematic holdings. In some cases, it is subsequent history and memory that erase what came before. In those instances, archives, however problematic, can present a useful counter-narrative to sanitized mythologies. In my own research, I confronted archives that overflowed with evidence of urban slavery even as I inhabited a city that paradoxically commoditized the inheritances of slave culture while effacing actual enslaved people from history and memory. Through research in the archives – daily travel to them, work in them – I could see “another city,” to borrow a phrase, and it was full of enslaved men, women, and children. My recent monograph, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, 2016) provides a prismatic view of the central role of slavery – and enslaved people – in late colonial and early American New Orleans, a city located at the crossroads of U.S. Empire and the Atlantic World.

The first archive I visited was the Williams Research Center in the Vieux Carré, which is the oldest part of French New Orleans. I took the Elysian Fields bus through Faubourg Marigny there each day. That route, which Bernard Marigny named after paradise by way of Paris, passes through his eponymous neighborhood, up Decatur, and then to Canal Street. I rode alongside the Mississippi River, past Café du Monde and the St. Louis Cathedral to Conti Street. From there, I walked the short blocks to the archive in search of people who had walked those same streets two centuries before. In hindsight, perhaps this bus ride explains why I became interested in that particular neighborhood, which I give a close examination in the book’s third chapter. Perhaps it also explains my interest in the Slave Evaluation Reports preserved on microfilm at the Williams Center. I use those reports in the book’s fifth chapter to follow the handful of self-liberated persons of African descent who allied with British invaders in the days leading up to the Battle of New Orleans. They traded Louisiana’s sugar plantations – formerly part of Marigny’s inheritance – for land ownership in Trinidad, and their subsequent challenges anticipated those that would confront larger numbers of freedpersons in the era of emancipations.

If a walk to the Williams Center feels like a trip to colonial New Orleans, then the Notarial Archives Research Center seems to be situated firmly within the mid-twentieth century. The Notarial Archives is in the Central Business District, a short walk from the 1870s-era New Orleans Cotton Exchange that Edgar Degas famously depicted. That archive is on Poydras near Lasalle Street, across from City Hall and virtually adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Tucked into the third floor of what I knew as the Amoco Building (now the Orleans Tower), that research center is housed at the heart of mid-century office buildings and the bureaucracies they house.

The recent economic histories of slavery generally agree that chattel slavery was foundational to capitalist development, so it is perversely fitting that the records of the hundreds of thousands of transactions slave sales now rest in the heart of the city’s Central Business District. Slavery’s Metropolis is not an economic history, but it does draw on the notarial records to illuminate the ways that financial transactions recorded biographical information about (and/or attributed to) enslaved persons in order to better identify, evaluate, trade, manage, and bequeath their human property. For example, Slavery’s Metropolis opens with the story of Charlotte, a young woman who survived the Middle Passage and arrived in New Orleans, only to face a second transatlantic journey to Bordeaux as a hired nurse. The passport issued for her proposed journey is housed in the Slavery in Louisiana Collection at the Williams Center, but the notarial archives houses the act of sale that transferred her from one owner to another. Those sources tell us how much the prominent Forstall brothers paid for her, and they also tell us the name of Charlotte’s daughter – Corine. A search for the stories of Charlotte’s Atlantic journeys requires the researcher to traverse the urban and Atlantic archival landscape. And though her own life remains hidden in many key regards, those documents nonetheless remind us that she was there, she worked, she gave birth. And those things matter.

The streets of New Orleans are palimpsests of that city’s many histories. From the eras of sugar and cotton to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, labor diasporas have built and rebuilt New Orleans. Layered into them are the experiences that indigenous peoples and global migrants, both free and unfree, have imprinted into them. And as Joseph Roach memorably illuminates in Cities of the Dead, their stories are part of a contested history that is remembered, reenacted, and contested in the city’s streets every day.

Rashauna Johnson is associate professor of history at Dartmouth College. Her recent monograph, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, 2016) was awarded the Williams Prize in Louisiana history.