NEW ORLEANS – Thousands of tourists flock to the French Quarter each year through the beautiful Esplanade Avenue, an oak-strewn stretch known for its Creole cottages. The huge trees are a source of shade and date from the early 1700s.
Until now, little light has been shed on what happened under these trees, and there is little evidence that the area was once home to one of the largest slave markets in the country – a place where families were divided and where slaves were kept. is, sold, and worked.
The city known for Mardi Gras was addicted to one in three residents, and was the site for the buying and selling of more than 135,000 peoplewhich makes it the center of the American slave trade before the Civil War.
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“America needs the ghosts of slavery to remind us of how our nation was truly built,” Marcus Brown, an international sculptor, painter, inventor, musician and avant-garde sound performer, told PBS NewsHour about his ” Slavery Trails “installation. “There is a lack of representation on how a historic city like New Orleans was really put together.
Unlike most cities, which had only a single place for slave markets, New Orleans had more than 50 places where slaves were sold. It was a high concentration of complexes that stretched from Esplanade Avenue to the Mississippi River to the central business district.
“Almost none of the buildings in New Orleans say ‘thank you’ to the addicted people who built them,” Brown said. “But the reality is that many of these structures were built with slave labor, and many of our streets that we walk in the French Quarter and elsewhere were built in slave labor. We have never addressed it properly. “
Part of the reason the city has not previously turned to historical markers or other tools to help tell this story is “that there was no willingness to look at difficult challenging aspects of New Orleans’ history,” “said Erin Greenwald, a historian. and editor of 64 Congregations Magazine. “We in New Orleans have a tendency to celebrate all the wonderful contributions of black people and descendants of Africans without wanting to look too closely at what it is like for those groups of people to come here.”
“There are a lot of people who think that tourism-related history should focus on the good parts of our history, which is dishonest,” Greenwald added.
In 2018, Greenwald led an effort to develop markers for seven sites involved in the New Orleans slave and trade markets for the city’s three-century celebration. Before then, there were few existing markers that testified to the history of the slave trade, except one in Congo Square. More efforts have been launched since then, but after 300 years, she admits, “understandably it’s a difficult balance.”
Brown, an educator at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), put it all out there – albeit in virtual reality. The show is an interactive augmented reality (AR) sculpture series to spread awareness of where addicted people have been physically and to help people become more comfortable with the subject while also seeking to understand more about it.
He hopes his bright fluorescent pink virtual sculpture will address slavery and racial violence.
This video by artist Marcus Brown shows part of his new exhibit, which uses pink virtual ghosts to tell the story of slave markets in New Orleans.
People can stand under the oaks on Esplanade Avenue at the edge of the French Quarter and activate the screen with a special QR code using the Adobe Aero application and a smartphone. A dozen bright pink digital ghosts appear, hovering a few feet above the ‘neutral ground’, or median, each made to his likeness. Brown acknowledges that the surprising pink color has a dual purpose: to celebrate and to indicate that “people flourished to build New Orleans.”
“I have a lot of different ancestry in my blood, but everyone sees me as one color, so I didn’t add any other colors,” Brown said. “Everyone sees me as one color and that color is very bright and vibrant. Wherever I go in the country, I have to be aware that I walk around so clearly. ”
The self-funded project is in the same place where a free black man, Solomon Northup, was abducted and sold into slavery. It is also the location of one of the city’s former domestic slave markets. The newly placed marker now comes to life, like most of Brown’s art, with powerful sounds and images from the “Slavery Trails” exhibition. A tap on the phone and you will hear the vivid sounds of Brown playing altsax and the sound of Brown forging an iron collar used on slaves.
“It’s to show that a lot of people, like me, are descendants of addicted people and have contributed to this legacy,” Brown said. “At the opening, one person told me they were crying over the concept of people being sold… I can imagine it getting worse – when I add women and children, sounds and sculptures. What will be the emotional impact of that? ”
“This survival of the African diaspora in the United States is one of the best heroic suspicion stories you could ever tell. I just think it is not being told, because that narrative is unacceptable, ”Brown added. “I hope people are interested in what happened so that they know it’s not just like some boomer with whom they have no connection. It is connected to everyone. ”
Historians say remembering New Orleans’ overlooked ties to slavery did not come easily – the city as a whole is essentially a memorial to slavery.
In 2018, the city, in addition to the markers, also unveiled the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker Tour, a smartphone application and website tour of sites that were involved in the slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries. The tour features more than two hours of recorded segments, including historical descriptions and readings from interviews with and writings by former slaves.
“It is now more appropriate than ever that we uphold and recognize the history of our 300-year-old city,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said during a unveiling ceremony for the markers. “This initiative will enable us to honor the lives and dignity of those ancestors who were undoubtedly bought and sold here in New Orleans.”
The markers made for the project, youlike state-historic markers, are mounted directly on buildings and on top of the project’s logo: A black man, woman and child around an auction block behind which a white man has raised a hammer.
“It’s a very small piece of history, but it’s a start. It was to make sure that New Orleans did not lag behind, ”says Greenwald, who led the group charged with setting up markers as part of the three-year Cultural and Historical Committee formed by the city that included researchers, writers, musicians, and historians.“I really believe that New Orleans saw that it was behind the times in terms of recognizing that history. We were further behind than Charleston, South Carolina. The state of Louisiana does not have a civil rights museum, but the state of Mississippi does. It was to make sure that New Orleans did not fall behind. “
Efforts to personalize the slave trade, such as Marcus Brown’s “Slavery Trails,” will help illustrate how deep New Orleans’ ties to the slave trade are, Greenwald added.
“What Marcus Brown has done is to create works of art that connect the kind of abstraction of the slave trade to a human body. I think it is really fantastic and I would like to see it happen more, ”said Greenwald. “It’s harder to look away.”
“When you have a city like New Orleans with the tourism industry we have, it’s a unique opportunity for people to learn something here and try to understand what that learning means for their own lives and their own communities,” said Greenwald.
Brown says the next step for his exhibition is to sell three-dimensional versions of works of art that depict himself to fund other interactive installations across the city and perhaps the country. He will sell the self-portrait sculptures at the same price he would have sold if he had been addicted: between $ 14,000 and $ 180,000 in today’s dollars.
Brown says the “beautiful and beautifully awful” installation was overwhelming even for him, but considers it one of his most important works of art.
“I think there is a misconception that black people want to talk about slavery all the time, but that is not really true. This is not a joyful thing for us. “We have never addressed it properly and we are only now beginning to tell the truth about what happened here,” Brown said. “People do not want the narrative to be out there. Many people who do not agree with me on these markers are people who want to be the hero of their own narrative as opposed to telling the truth about slavery. ”