They were just kids, 11 of them, between the ages of 9 and 12.
Their terrible ordeal is documented in a bill of sale, transporting them from Norfolk, Virginia, to an auction block in the rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans.
These days, they’d be in elementary school.
But in 1835, the seven boys and four girls were torn from their families and herded onto a slave ship, Brig Ajax.
From there, they were brought to New Orleans to be auctioned to the highest bidder in the lobby of the St. Louis Hotel.
That’s the harsh reality of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade.”
The show opens Tuesday in the Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St., and runs through Saturday, July 18.
“New Orleans had the largest slave market in the South, and we haven’t dealt with that as a city,” Erin Greenwald says. “We haven’t done as good a job on this subject, and we’re hoping this will open a dialogue about the domestic slave trade here.”
Greenwald is the curator and historian for the collection, which has been working on this show for more than two years.
The United States passed an act prohibiting the importation of slaves to the country in 1808, but the domestic trade churned on. In the 57 years between 1808 and 1865, an estimated 1 million people found themselves at the center of a forced migration.
It wrought havoc on the lives of enslaved families, as owners and traders in Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., sold and shipped laborers to the Lower South states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
“Many of these people passed though New Orleans,” Greenwald says. “The slave trade is a difficult subject. This is really the moment when people are at their most vulnerable. Husbands are being taken away from their wives, children are being taken away from their mothers. It’s terrifying to think about.”
It’s also an unavoidable subject for visitors to the show, for “Purchased Lives” is, by no means, a comfortable subject, and Greenwald tells the children’s story through records she discovered in the United States national archives.
It’s where she found not only their story but some 70,000 records of people who were shipped to New Orleans to be sold between 1818 and 1860.
“The United States required a paper record to be created whenever a slave was moved,” Greenwald says. “It includes detailed information, including age, color, height and sex. ... We compiled a database of all the manifests that were created.”
The point of the exhibit is to humanize the slave trade. “There have been a lot of exhibits that look at slavery economically,” Greenwalds says. “But we’ve tried to make sure to incorporate first-person accounts into our exhibit.”
Other industries benefited
The show includes two Brooks Brothers coats worn by a slave between 1857 and 1865 in the household of Dr. William Newton Mercer, showing how the slave trade proved beneficial for supporting industries.
“Banks, insurance companies and clothing industries all benefited from slave sales,” Greenwald says. “Nineteenth century textiles are the hardest to keep, and we’re so fortunate to have these coats in our collection.”
Brooks Brothers was one of the earliest men’s clothiers, and the brand was a top choice for both slave owners and traders.
“Plantation owners clothed their servants in Brooks Brothers,” Greenwald says. “And when people came to New Orleans to be sold as slaves, they were immediately issued new clothing to make them more salable.”
Slaves also had to take a trip to Touro Infirmary before they were placed on the auction block.
“We have records in the show from Touro Infirmary, where 45 percent of the patients going through there prior to the Civil War were slaves. … The traders brought them to the infirmary to make sure they were healthy before they were sold.”
“But this doesn’t stop with the end of slavery,” Greenwald says. “Slavery became part of the tourism industry in New Orleans and continued as late as the 1950s. We have postcards of the auction block in the St. Louis Hotel’s rotunda that people could buy and send home.”
Two of those postcards are on display. One of those 11 children could have stood on that block. Or all 11.
The New Orleans Historic Collection is making sure their lives are not forgotten.
This story was corrected on March 15 to note the source of the records as the national archives, rather than the New Orleans Notarial Archives.