Slavery was already institutionalized in the U.S. before the country won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1783 and still in place for decades more following ratification of the Constitution.
Congress banned the importation of new slaves in 1808, but it took a Civil War and a Constitutional amendment in the mid 19th century to formerly abolish the practice of slavery in the U.S. Until then, people were essentially treated as private property and sold at markets.
Using an online map published by The Historic New Orleans collection, The Quarter Rat digitally plotted the slave markets in the French Quarter to give a sense of where they once existed.
The July 4 holiday commemorates the day America declared its independence from Great Britain, but still, at times, struggles with its legacy of enslaving human beings—the vast majority of whom were people of color—for their labor.
A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee erected in 1884 remained for decades as what many considered an unpleasant reminder of the city’s place in the transatlantic slave trade. It took nearly two years of legal wrangling between the city and the state legislature, going as far as the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, before Lee statue was removed on May 19, 2017.
To those with knowledge of the city’s history, many reminders of slavery are still present—they’re just not as obvious as a Confederate statue. One of the most notable locations is the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel at 621 St. Louis St., once known as the St. Louis Exchange and Hotel. Here was the location of a large 88-foot rotunda that once held social gatherings, parties, and slave auctions on a regular basis.
Described by The Daily Picayune in 1840 as “the pride of Orleans and of Louisiana” and “the most gorgeous edifice in the Union,” it contained a saloon, an elegantly furnished hotel, a bar room, a billiard room, and several offices and stores.
An excerpt from vianolavie.org describes a prosperous scene inside the rotunda:
John Theophilus Kramer describes the scene of a slave auction where “richly dressed gentlemen are helping themselves to fine liquors and delicacies,” and “ladies, splendidly dressed in black silk and satin, and glittering with precious jewels, are entering the hall.” This description portrays the luxuries not only of owning slaves, but also of buying and selling them.vianolavie.org
On February 11, 1840, the rotunda suffered a fire that collapsed its dome. According to an article published in The Daily Picayune the next day, the fire began in the attic on Royal Street and “advanced with resistless progress along the front of the building on St. Louis [S]treet.”
The rotunda was left in place for decades after the Civil War and served as somewhat of a tourist attraction, according to nola.com. It was eventually demolished in 1916.
There’s nothing to indicate where a slave market was once held in the Quarter, except maybe a history marker. Below is an interactive map showing the approximate locations of nearly two dozen markets, giving a sense of how different the neighborhood was compared to now.