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So this episode is specifically for my US History students. They are off on a weeklong class trip to New Orleans and I promised them I would teach them a little history before they went. Then, in true teacher fashion, I ran out of time so I made a podcast episode instead! Enjoy!
I’ll make this quick and simple so that you can get back to your Snapchatting or Fortniting or whatever the heck you kids do these days.
First, New Orleans has changed hands so many times in history. First, as with all things in our country, it belonged to the indigenous people. But we all know how that turned out. The area where New Orleans is now has been continuously inhabited since the year 400 (for context, that’s 76 years before Rome fell and 200 years before Islam became a thing. So it’s old.) The Mississippian tribes who lived there built mounds, earthworks, and transformed their environment to conduct trade along the rivers and man-made canals. I will say, when I was in school I remember learning about “mound people” and it didn’t sound very impressive. I think I pictured Hobbits living in their Hobbit holes? But, y’all should Google these mound civilizations – imagine Mesopotamian ziggurats or Egyptian pyramids, but made entirely out of the earth. It’s amazing. Oh and also, when white people first showed up all along the Mississippi River and observed these mounds – which are clearly manmade structures (there are like right angles and stuff like that) they first believed these were naturally occurring. What that means is that it was more plausible to white explorers that the earth just naturally jutted up into perfectly symmetrical temple-like structures rather than believe that Native Americans built it. That’s what we call racism, kids.
So, after the white explorers took control of the region it first was controlled by the French. They founded La Nouvelle-Orleans (or New Orleans) in 1718. (For context, that’s about a hundred years after the first permanent British colony Jamestown was founded and about 60 years before Americans declared independence.) The city was named after Phillip II, the Duke of Orleans. His uncle was Louis XIV – the guy with the amazing hair who built Versailles and made nobles dress him in the morning. Philip, the Duke of Orleans, ruled France on behalf of his cousin who technically became king at the age of five. Phillip was like, “Why don’t I handle things for a little bit while you learn how to read?”
One of the main parts of the city where you’ll probably spend time is now called the French Quarter. After a hurricane destroyed the city in 1722, they rebuilt it in the European style. You’ll notice that the streets are on a perfect grid system. The earliest population of Europeans in New Orleans were what we would call “riff raff” – deported galley slaves, fur traders, and gold hunters – all capitalizing on the proximity to the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River. New Orleans was basically the French equivalent of the “Wild West.”
When France lost to Spain in the Seven Years War (that’s what Americans call the “French and Indian War”), Spain took control of New Orleans. Two massive fires destroyed most of the city, which is why you’ll now see the French Quarter characterized by Spanish-style architecture – interior courtyards, large arched doorways, wrought iron fences, massive balconies. At this point, New Orleans was the main trading port for the Spanish to bring sugar and rum into the U.S. from their Caribbean colonies – especially Cuba.
During the Spanish colonial era, Madame LaLaurie lived in her mansion in the French Quarter. She was a Creole socialite who threw amazing parties, oh and she was also a serial killer. She held captive, tortured, and murdered slaves in her household. Partygoers had stories of black people running through her dining room trying to escape from her basement. Seriously, look her up. She was terrifying. After a fire at her mansion, the authorities discovered slaves in her attic who had been treated so cruelly that a mob of outraged citizens sacked her home. But don’t worry, she escaped and lived out her life in Paris.
At some point New Orleans went back into French hands – to be honest I have no idea why, let’s not worry about it. But, it’s at this point that Napoleon Bonaparte decides to sell the Louisiana Territory to Thomas Jefferson for like $3. Napoleon needed cash fast to help put down the Haitian Revolution and to finance his quest to conquer all of Europe, because he’s Napoleon. Between direct payment and canceling debts, the U.S. paid France about $15 million for 538 million acres of land in the midwest. Today that land is worth $1.3 trillion. It was a hell of a deal.
So, at this point, in 1803 New Orleans became an American city. But because of its complex history, New Orleans has always been amazingly diverse. From indigenous people to European settlers to mixed-race Creoles and freed and/or escaped enslaved African, New Orleans offered opportunities. This is one of the reasons why, 100 years later, New Orleans would become the birthplace of jazz – a musical style that infuses so many cultures into one sound – freed or escaped slaves coming from the Caribbean brought their call-and-response vocals and improvisation while Europeans brought their large military band music. Julia does this way more justice than me, but jazz is basically the musical equivalent of the “melting pot” character of our country and New Orleans is its physical representation.
In 1811, New Orleans was the site of the largest slave revolt in American history. Known as the German Coast Uprising, around 100 men started marching from sugar plantations toward New Orleans, gathering more enslaved people along the way. Over the course of the uprising, they burned down five plantation houses, several sugar cane mills, and countless crops as they walked 25 miles. 95 black people died and 2 white men died. White men along with the US Army hunted down the leaders of the uprising, eventually executing 44 African Americans. Their heads were hung around the Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square) as a warning. So think about that when you’re wandering around the square eating beignets! Or don’t.
New Orleans rose to prominence during the War of 1812. The British recognized the city as an important economic hub, connecting the southwest parts of the U.S. with the industrial north so they sent a large force to capture the city. This is where Andrew Jackson rode in on his horse and was like, “No way British! Haven’t you heard? I’m Andrew Jackson and I’m the Hero of New Orleans!” I don’t know, Jeff can probably tell you the actual history but that’s how I imagine it.
At the epic Battle of New Orleans 2,000 out of the 9,000 British troops were killed. But, it turns out, the entire battle was fought after a peace treaty had already been signed. I guess no one sent a memo down to Louisiana to let Andrew Jackson know. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if AJ got the memo and hid it so he would have an excuse to ride around on his horse killing British people as the Hero of New Orleans. Honestly guys, I’m not a military historian, give me a break.
During the Civil War, New Orleans was captured quickly without any bloodshed by northern Union troops, which is why most of its antebellum architecture is still intact. During the Reconstruction era, when the North was guiding the South on how to… you know… not be racist. Louisiana led the way. It was the first state to elect a black governor and its public schools and police were fully integrated. But as we know, racists hate it when other people tell them to not be racist. In 1874, a militia (or essentially just dudes with guns who want to make themselves sound more legitimate) known as the White League took control of the city by winning battles against US troops in the French Quarter and along Canal Street. Think about this – a militia of white Americans battled the US military and took control of a major city! And then after Reconstruction ended a few years later, these guys just joined the local police or the National Guard. Oh great.
Side note: a monument in honor of this event – again, when a white racist terrorist organization defeated the US military who was there trying to protect black people – was erected on Canal Street. The Battle of Liberty Place Monument stayed up in New Orleans until 2017! Whoa!
But let’s move on to something more uplifting. Similar to Little Rock, New Orleans was at the center of public school integration during the Civil Rights Movement. Ruby Bridges, at age 6, was the only African-American student to attend her newly integrated elementary school. Escorted by federal troops, she faced mobs and threats – again, she was six. But each day she came back to school and community members of all colors began to step in and protect her. She became a symbol of hope for school integration across the U.S.
Here are a few other highlights of New Orleans history:
- During an outbreak of yellow fever in 1905, New Orleans led the way in understanding the role of mosquitoes in spreading disease. They drained and screened water sources and educated the public, leading to a hugely successful campaign of disease prevention. President Teddy Roosevelt visited the city to show the nation that it was safe – and no cases of Yellow Fever have been recorded since. *Knock on wood.*
- During the Progressive Era and the New Deal, New Orleans was the beneficiary of infrastructure improvements, especially levees that would protect the city from rising floodwaters. These received national attention when the failure of the levee and floodwall system during Hurricane Katrina created “the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.” Around 1500 people died when the hurricane hit in 2005 along with $125 billion worth of damage. The parts of the city that were most affected, that were the lowest in relation to sea level and with the least maintained levees, were typically also the parts of the city where people of color lived.
- During WWII, New Orleans was the main site of the development and construction of Higgins boats. These are the amphibious landing craft you’ve seen in pictures and movies about D-Day and they were instrumental in winning the war in Europe and especially the Pacific.
OK. Before I let y’all go – let me tell you some fast facts about a few places you’ll probably visit on your trip:
- Bourbon Street – Now this is the place where tourists make bad decisions, but it was named after the House of Bourbon – the French ruling family when the city was founded.
- Jackson Square – It used to be the Place d’Armes but after the Battle of New Orleans they named it after Andrew Jackson. In the center of the park you’ll see a massive statue to AJ riding his horse. When you see it, please imagine him running around yelling, “I’m the hero of New Orleans!” That would make me very happy. Around him on the four corners of the square are four other statues that are meant to be personifications of the four seasons.
- The Garden District is beautiful. It’s also where Sandra Bullock lives. I may or may not have walked by her house multiple times and tried to peer into her backyard. But this isn’t about me. The reason why the Garden District is so beautiful is because it’s always been where the rich white people lived. It was originally a few large plantations but the land was divided up and sold off to wealthy families who didn’t want to live in the French Quarter along with the growing mixed-race population. Originally, these homes were 19th century mansions surrounded by huge gardens. But in the 20th century as the city became more urban, the plots were divided up and newer Gingerbread-type houses were built around each mansion. If you walk through the neighborhood, see if you can tell the 19th century mansions from the newer homes! And tell Sandra I say “Hi!”
- Cafe du Monde is where you will go to eat more beignets than a human is meant to eat. It has been operating since 1862 – that’s during the Civil War! That means that while our nation was ripped apart – brother against brother – brutal bloodshed over slavery, someone in New Orleans thought, “You know what we need right now? Fried dough.” And dang it, he was right. During the war, there was a coffee shortage and so the New Orleans Creoles mixed in chicory to supplement the dwindling coffee supplies. They still use this recipe today and it gives the coffee a chocolatey flavor. Ugh it’s so good.
So, in summation: eat all of the beignets, listen to jazz, say hi to Andrew and Sandra for me, and have a fantastic time in New Orleans!