The location of New Orleans, at the foot of the Mississippi and at the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, made it the most important port city in the American South. For centuries, all goods and peoples coming in from the Caribbean and Latin America entered the country through New Orleans. New Orleans was also the major port for all goods exported from the mid-section of the country.
From the earliest days of European settlement, New Orleans produced and shipped its own products. In addition to seafood, the climate and rich delta lands of southern Louisiana made it ideal for growing a number of crops that the rest of the country needed, including rice, sugar, and cotton.
By 1840, New Orleans was the wealthiest and third-most populous city in the country.
The slave trade played a major role in the history of New Orleans. Because of its strategic location for domestic and foreign trade, New Orleans was crucial to the slave trade. In fact, it had the largest slave market in the entire South.
New Orleans also had the largest and most prosperous community of free persons of color in the U.S., many of whom were slave-owners themselves.
Black New Orleans
Because of its reputation as a cosmopolitan, tolerant city, free people of color (known as les gens de couleur libres) came to New Orleans from across the South, the Caribbean and Latin America. They could buy property with relatively few restrictions, they could live side by side with whites, they were allowed to establish educational institutions and practice their professions as doctors, lawyers, scholars, educators, etc. (At the same time, Louisiana had a well-deserved reputation for being the most brutal state in the South for black slaves.) By 1830, free people of color in New Orleans owned $2.5 million in property and had grown to about 12,000 people (in addition to the thousands of black slaves).48
How do you pronounce that?
The largest concentration of blacks—both free and enslaved—lived in the area north of the French Quarter called Tremé. First established in 1780s, it is the oldest continuous black community in the U.S.49 Until the “urban renewal” destruction of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a thriving, prosperous community.
Tremé is also the home of Congo Square which played a major role in the unique development of music in New Orleans.
During slavery, New Orleans was the only city in the South to allow slaves to gather publicly for cultural and social events. Every Sunday, slaves and free people of color gathered in Congo Square to play their indigenous and evolving music, to dance, and to hold their religious and cultural celebrations. Congo Square was where musical traditions from across the African diaspora came together and evolved into new and unique sounds indigenous to New Orleans. The European marching bands were blended with the drums and rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean to create the distinctive New Orleans Brass Bands which began proliferating after 1880 mostly because of the availability of cheap, used trumpets and cornets pawned by Civil War veterans. These bands then gave rise to the marching bands which were hired to play their distinctive music at funerals. Then around 1900, blues and gospel blended with the brass bands to create the music that changed the world: jazz.50
Reconstruction in New Orleans
In 1868, Louisiana passed a new Reconstruction-era constitution which was considered to be one of the most progressive in the country. It extended voting and other civil rights to black males, established an integrated, free public school system, and guaranteed blacks equal access to public accommodations, including public office.51 Though women of all races were still barred from voting or holding political office, the new government was integrated along race and class lines.52
In New Orleans especially, because of the large black population, there was a new society being created that allowed blacks and working class people to be part of their own governance. It was during Reconstruction that our country saw the first black governor elected to office—P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana.53 It would take another 117 years until another black person would become a governor in America: Douglas Wilder in Virginia.
White planters were determined to overturn the new social order, and there was a lot of violence, particularly during elections.54 But the federal government, whose Union troops had occupied New Orleans throughout the Civil War—though they did little to stop the violence—did not intervene on behalf of the white planters.
Then came the disputed presidential election of 1876 between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. (The white planters and supporters of reinstating slavery were mostly Democrat and the majority of blacks and supporters of Reconstruction were mostly Republican.)
Tilden won the popular vote, but the Electoral College vote was split on whether to accept the results because the popular vote in the South was primarily the result of voter intimidation and widespread violence, particularly in Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida. The Southern Democrats were unwilling to withdraw their demand for a Tilden presidency unless the federal government agreed to end Reconstruction-era reforms in the South, and the Northern power-brokers felt the South was simply too crucial to the nation’s economy to risk a white planters’ rebellion. What resulted was the Compromise of 1877 in which the Southern Democrat states of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida gave their votes to Republican Hayes, and in exchange, the federal government would allow these states to repeal Reconstruction-era reforms and return to “home rule.”55, 56, 57
The white supremacist planters, with the help of federal troops, put down Reconstruction and established a far more segregated, stratified social structure than had ever existed before in New Orleans. Thus began the introduction throughout the South of Jim Crow laws and the “separate but equal” doctrine, all of which were contrary to the laws of the rest of the land.
The End of Slavery in the North