Amid the many celebrations and retrospectives that have accompanied the city's 300th birthday this year, one of the less-heralded aspects of New Orleans' history is finally getting a more official acknowledgement: its central place in the slave trade.
Two different groups, one of them affiliated with the official 2018 Tricentennial Commission, have plans to erect markers that explain the city's role as the largest slave market in the Deep South.
The New Orleans Committee to Erect Historic Markers on the Slave Trade has already placed one marker at the Moonwalk along the Mississippi River and another in the neutral ground at Esplanade Avenue and Chartres Street.
"For so many years, this part (of the city's history) was not commemorated," said Freddi Williams Evans, a New Orleans-based author and historian who serves as one of the committee's chairs. "This is an effort to rectify that."
The selling of slaves, which had been going on in New Orleans for nearly a century at the time the city became part of the United States in 1803, really took off after Congress banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1808.
With almost no new slaves arriving from Africa, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were forcibly moved from the Upper South, states like Maryland and Virginia, to the Deep South, where the cotton economy was booming and landowners needed labor.
New Orleans, in position to receive cargos of slaves traveling both down the Mississippi River and along the coast, became the Deep South's biggest market for humans during the first half of the 19th century.
Evans said cities like New Orleans are just coming around to publicly commemorating this part of their history. "We see these efforts across the country," she said. "It's nothing isolated to New Orleans."
Cities like Montgomery, Alabama; Charleston, South Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia, have wrestled with how to properly remember the slavery era, she noted.
The other local group involved in setting up new markers on the slave trade is the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker and App Project, an effort of the Tricentennial Commission's Cultural and Historical Committee.
Erin M. Greenwald, a historian who works at the New Orleans Museum of Art and is a member of the committee, said the group plans to place six markers at places where slaves were actually traded, although the precise locations have not been announced.
An app that can be downloaded will provide an audio tour of the sites, Greenwald said.
Two markers will go in the Central Business District, three in the French Quarter and one in Faubourg Marigny, she said. The committee hopes to have them in place by the end of July.
Each of the six will mark properties "that have direct links to the slave trade," Greenwald said, though she noted that some of the buildings now on the sites are from later periods.
Those sites include places where people were sold at auction or held in "pens," which functioned like prisons, Greenwald said.
The markers help reveal how the slave trade grew in New Orleans after the banning of the transatlantic trade, according to Joshua Rothman, a professor at the University of Alabama.
Prior to 1808, cotton had only begun to be the money crop that it would shortly become, Rothman said. But the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent infrastructure and technology improvements fueled its boom, he said.
Burgeoning cotton production in the Deep South, coupled with a surfeit of enslaved people along the eastern seaboard, especially in tobacco-growing areas, created a massive forced migration — estimated at more than one million people — from places like Alexandria, Virginia, and Baltimore to the Deep South.
And many of those people were brought to New Orleans, Rothman said.
"The best estimate I have seen says that between 1804 and 1862, 135,000 people were bought and sold in New Orleans," he said. The second biggest market, Natchez, Mississippi, was much smaller than New Orleans.
Many of those slaves were then taken to sugar plantations in south Louisiana or to cotton plantations farther north.
It's only recently that some cities are beginning to address that history, Rothman noted. Richmond and Montgomery have created memorials that point to those cities' roles in trading people.
For Evans, the markers are an important first step toward addressing not only the inhumanity of the trade but also the contributions enslaved people made to the rich cultural history of New Orleans.
"It's important to know the contributions that enslaved people made to the city," she said. "We are saying, 'Let's paint a fuller picture.' "
Luther Gray, who has worked with Evans on getting the first two markers up, said he hopes the markers will help bring more notice to the city's history in the slave trade.
"I think it's going to be a major starting point," he said.