Magazine article American Visions

Feasts, Fests, Fun: New Orleans

Magazine article American Visions

Feasts, Fests, Fun: New Orleans

Article excerpt

Like the gumbo that has made Louisiana famous, New Orleans is a city built on the collective heritages of French, Spanish and Caribbean settlers. But many significant contributions to one of America's most popular tourist destinations were made by Africans and their descendants. From the slave-made wrought ironwork that adorns balconies in the French Quarter through the music and nightlife that made the city famous to the black political and civil rights leaders who grew up here, New Orleans is a city that continues to blossom from the spirit of its African roots.



The first slave ship arrived in Louisiana in 1719 with 500 slaves from West Africa. That number grew steadily, so that by the War of 1812 there were 40,000 slaves in the region and 50 years later there were eight times as many more. At one point, half of the people in New Orleans were slaves. But New Orleans also had a large free black population, and thousands of blacks owned plantations, businesses, newspapers--even slaves. During the 19th century, New Orleans was a cauldron of activity, fueled by Europeans, Indians, Caribbean refugees, Catholic missionaries, free blacks and slaves. It didn't take long before antislavery conspiracies developed. Two took place in Pointe Coupee, La., in 1791 and 1795, and when they were discovered, more than 50 slaves and white sympathizers were executed or sentenced to hard labor.

Then in 1811, Louisiana was the site of the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, involving as many as 500 slaves in a battle against U.S. troops, local vigilantes, and at least one free black militia unit that volunteered to put down the uprising.

These historical events are outlined in the Cabildo, one of the first stops on any visit to New Orleans. Located on Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter, the Cabildo was built by the Spanish between 1795 and 1799 and now serves as a museum operated by the state of Louisiana. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase, which transferred most of what is now America's Midwest from France to the United States for four cents an acre, was signed on the second floor of the Cabildo.

Today the museum gives the history of Louisiana from the Colonial period to Reconstruction, with a strong emphasis on African-American life in the state. A five-minute video presentation describes the earliest settlers of Louisiana, including arrivals of the first slave ships from Guinea. Displays address the arrival of former slaves after the Haitian Revolution and the secret antislavery groups that emerged in the 1790s. Exhibits characterize cruel slave traditions in the state, focusing on such objects as a replica of a slave auction block and a slave collar. Visitors are introduced to famous African Americans in Louisiana's history, such as P.B.S. Pinchback, America's first black governor, who served as the state's acting governor for 35 days in 1872. Curators from the Cabildo offer special African-American heritage tours on weekends.

Seven blocks away is the Old U.S. Mint, which now serves as a state museum and features one of America's best exhibits on the history of jazz and its African-American roots. Huge, wall-size paintings beautifully describe life in Storyville, the New Orleans neighborhood that was the birthplace of jazz. From 1897 to 1917, the bars and legal brothels of Storyville grooved with the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson, Steve Lewis and others who would later enter America's musical pantheon.

At this museum, visitors learn of the evolution of jazz--that its roots lie in 19th-century ragtime and that it was blended from African and West Indian beats, field songs, hymns and minstrel music. Additional displays show how jazz moved across America on riverboats and in nightclubs and eventually went international. The museum has more than 7,000 jazz recordings and 12,000 still photographs, plus musical instruments once owned by Louis Armstrong and Pete Fountain. …

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