Illustration by L. J. Bridgman. From M. Thompson (1888). The Story of Louisiana. Boston: Berwick & Smith.
Following a trend in many Southern states to take down the Confederate battle flag, the City Council of New Orleans voted on 17 December 2015 to remove four monuments to the Confederacy from the city’s landscape. Three of those statues honour General Robert E. Lee, General Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. The fourth monument is an obelisk celebrating the Battle of Liberty Place, when members of the Crescent City White League attacked the New Orleans Metropolitan Police in their effort to overthrow a biracial Republican government and a black-dominated legislature. The proposal was introduced by a majority of City Council members. But opponents to took it to the Federal Appeals Court, while white supremacists started threatening those sponsoring the proposal and the contractor hired for the job.
The issue of slavery still plagues the lives of the inhabitants of New Orleans.
This case is a perfect illustration of how the issue of slavery still plagues the lives of the inhabitants of New Orleans. As things stand, controversial monuments imposed by white supremacists dominate public space. With the noticeable exception of the statue of Louis Armstrong, the black population (more than 60% of the city) is excluded from memorialisation in public space – New Orleans is still awaiting its first markers related to slavery.
In sharp contrast to New Orleans, a museum exclusively dedicated to the memorialisation of slavery was recently open to the public on the Whitney Plantation. This historic site is located on the west bank of the Mississippi river, on the historic River Road in St. John the Baptist Parish, less than an hour west of New Orleans. As a site of memory, with the focus on the lives of the slaves and their legacies, visitors can experience the world of an 18th and 19th century indigo or sugar plantation through the eyes of the enslaved people who lived and worked there.
The ninety minute tour of the plantation is mostly devoted to the memorials built on the site. The Wall of Honour is dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on the plantation. Their names and basic information relating to them were retrieved from original archives and engraved on granite slabs. Similarly, the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is dedicated to all the people who were enslaved in Louisiana. Named after Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of Africans in Colonial Louisiana (1992) and Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas (2005), it recognises this scholar’s contribution to the history of slavery in the Americas. All the 107,000 names recorded in her Louisiana Slave Database are engraved on 216 granite slabs mounted on 18 walls.
Yet the most striking memorial at the Whitney Museum is still in the making and is dedicated to the 1811 slave uprising on the German coast of Louisiana. In January 1811, an uprising erupted involving an estimated number of 500 enslaved people in the lower Mississippi parishes of St. Charles, St. John, and St. James. It was the largest slave revolt in the U.S South, beginning on 8 January on the plantation of Colonel Manuel Andry, commander of the local militia. On their march towards New Orleans, the insurgents burned several plantations and added more recruits, including maroons who had been living in the woods. Many planters fled to the city with their families.
The uprising had several leaders – five of them born in Africa. It was apparently well planned and sought to capture New Orleans, free all the people enslaved there, and either lay the foundations for a black ‘nation’ or lead the people to a free country like Haiti or Mexico. The plotters knew that if they lost only death would await.
Unfortunately, they were hindered by weak firepower. On 10 January 1811, several detachments of militiamen attacked the rebels and by January 11 the insurrection was broken when the regular troops of General Hampton joined Major Milton’s Dragoons at Destréhan plantation. Many insurgents were killed and others fled into the swamps.
The freedom fighters knew that if they lost only death would await
On the evening of 12 January 1811, Charles Deslondes – the main leader of the insurrection – and several others were executed in the quarters of Colonel Andry after an expeditious trial. For the next two days, another trial took place with a court composed of Judge Pierre Bauchet St. Martin and a jury of five slave-owners. The insurgents were called ‘brigands’, like rebels throughout history, and judgments rendered without appeal. Convicted, the insurgents were shot in front of the plantations to which they ‘belonged’, before being beheaded and having their heads posted on poles as a warning to other enslaved men, women and children.
To commemorate this, the Whitney Museum has commissioned 63 ceramic heads from African-American artist Woodrow Nash. Those depicting the martyred rebels will be mounted on steel rods and displayed in a secluded area. The graphic memorial will be accessible only to adults. The place is designed to be like a shrine where people can perform prayers and libations. But more needs to be done to honour these freedom fighters, especially in New Orleans, where a monument should be erected. Mayor Mitch Landrieu described the decision to remove the Confederate monuments as a courageous decision, turning a page on a divisive past. Now New Orleans must go further. It should focus on celebrating its unique Afro-Creole culture, and its public space should be open to the memorialisation of the evils of slavery, as the evils of the Shoah are remembered elsewhere. The more the city does this, the more it will generate emotion and consciousness, both of which are necessary as we walk the path towards real reparations.