Publication Date

December 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Many people conceptualize the study of the “African diaspora” as focused on black experience beyond or separate from “African American” experience in the United States. But black experience in the United States fits fully within the wider African diaspora. Similarly, while black populations in New Orleans shared many—perhaps even most—of their experiences with the rest of the United States, they also lived through distinctive waves of multiple European colonizers and black and white emigration, with the concomitant rise of locally specific cultural production, social experience, and racial norms.


Africans in Early New Orleans

The city’s distinctive place in the development of African diaspora history and culture in the Americas began with the arrival of over 5,000 enslaved Africans in the first decade after the city’s founding in 1718. Legal enslavement of Africans and their descendants would continue in the city until the Civil War a century and a half later. Over the course of that period, people of African descent, both free and enslaved, regularly made up one third or more of the city’s population. A second large influx of new African arrivals came in the 1780s, halfway through the period from 1763 to 1802 when the city fell under Spanish rule. The relatively high percentage of enslaved people of African descent in the city and its environs, their critical role in building many of the city’s oldest neighborhoods (including the French Quarter), and generally making colonial life and commerce possible, has led historian Larry Powell to note that “France may have founded Louisiana as we know it, but it was [enslaved people] from Senegal and Congo who laid the foundation.”1 The legacy of the labor of enslaved Africans literally surrounds every visitor to the city.

Enslaved Africans shaped the city’s distinct culture. Histories of music in New Orleans highlight the possible influence of Congo Square—an open area at the back of the French Quarter and at the front of what would become the Treme neighborhood—where, in the 18th and 19th century, enslaved and free blacks were permitted to congregate on Sunday afternoons (in practice and later in law). Their social interaction included public musical performance and religious practice. The presence of such a site points to the character of a city where, simultaneous to suffering the restrictions and brutalities of slave society, Africans and their descendants had the opportunity to create significantly independent cultural and social spaces, which in turn influenced the larger city. Opportunities for local mobility, independent marketing, and social interaction, including public musical performance, were not completely unknown for enslaved and free blacks in English-colonized areas of the United States, but such experiences were much more common in the slave societies of the Caribbean and Latin America.

Haiti Connections

The most-discussed African cultural legacy in New Orleans is perhaps the African-derived religious system known—with simultaneous respect, derision, and misunderstanding—as voodoo. As with the related religious system of Haiti, the word voodoo derives from a Fon word vodunsi, referring to certain supernatural spirits. In Haitian vodun, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian candomble black populations (and others) follow a set of beliefs focused in part around a creator god, but mostly centered on human interaction with a variety of other spirits known as loas (or lwa) from the Fon, or orishas from the Yoruba. Prior to the Atlantic slave trade, these cultures shared similar religious systems in a region roughly corresponding to parts of present day Nigeria and Benin. From this background, African-derived religious practices developed in the Americas in places where significant numbers of either Yoruba or Fon people arrived enslaved, and found themselves in circumstances that permitted some degree of ongoing practice. One particularly significant factor was the presence of Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church not only encouraged baptism of enslaved people, but also included veneration of a body of saints that in some circumstances became associated with corresponding African spirits. Louisiana certainly received numbers of enslaved Africans from Fon and Yoruba areas of West Africa via the same slave trade networks that took such people to the Caribbean. Roman Catholicism was the predominant Christian religion in the colony. So some version of voodoo may have developed here in the 18th century, much as it did in Haiti.

Most significantly however, in the early 19th century an enormous migration of black and white immigrants from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue entered New Orleans after the anti-slavery revolution that created the Haitian Republic. This migration consisted of over 9,000 people, roughly one third identified as white, one third black and enslaved, and one third free people of color. Many scholars surmise that these immigrants introduced voodoo to New Orleans. The Saint-Domingue migrants soon comprised more than half of the black and mixed race population. People descended from these refugees continued to remember their heritage into the 20th century and many became renowned members of the local African American community. So, New Orleans before the 20th century had a prominent self-conscious community of black people who had arrived from elsewhere in the Americas, continued to share ties with populations in the Caribbean and were attuned to comparative experiences of colonialism and blackness.

Racial Patterns and Racial Politics

Another distinctive aspect of New Orleans’s black diaspora developed in the late 18th century as Spanish legal practices increased the population of free people of color through much more liberal rules allowing masters to manumit or free enslaved people. Many, although by no means all, of those manumitted were people of mixed race. The presence of this large population of sometimes white-appearing mulattoes, looked similar to patterns in parts of the Caribbean, and contributed to New Orleans’s often-exaggerated reputation as a city of widespread racial mixture and greater racial tolerance than elsewhere in the United States. As several scholars have noted, ideas about what the mulattoes and quadroons of New Orleans signified were much more powerful in shaping perceptions of the city than knowledge of the day-to-day lives of people of mixed race, which could be alternately prosperous or relatively impoverished, comparatively privileged or fraught with racial and social uncertainty, and many steps in between. For all the significance of the large population of people of mixed race, most residents of the city continued to fit generally into communities defined largely as black or white, in ways similar to racial experience elsewhere in North America. Also, for all the comparisons with Caribbean slave societies, most parts of Louisiana—with notable exceptions in some sugar plantation areas in the 19th century—did not have slavery-era population ratios comparable to the overwhelming black majorities that existed in many Caribbean islands.

While 19th-century black New Orleans history was significantly shaped by the Saint-Domingue migrants and the large populations of free people of color, the city was equally shaped by the shift to U.S. control in 1803. In the decades afterward, New Orleans became the largest domestic slave market in North America, receiving tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans being sold from states in the upper south to the growing cotton economy in the Deep South. New Orleans thus served as the nexus for one of the most significant internal migrations of African Americans in U.S. history, a geographic and cultural diaspora in its own right.

After the Civil War, New Orleans also received thousands of new domestic black migrants from Mississippi, rural Louisiana, and elsewhere. In part because of the large historic presence of free people of color and some of their cosmopolitan ideas about race and citizenship, Reconstruction politics in the city were particularly rich. But as elsewhere in the South, African American political ambitions were crushed both by political forces and by crude, extreme, and sometimes deadly racial violence. Tourists who visit Congo Square or the historic Treme neighborhood (home to numerous notable African Americans since the early 1800s), might also visit the Liberty Place monument, constructed in 1891 to celebrate the actions of organized white supremacists who attempted to overthrow Louisiana’s Reconstruction government by force in 1874.

Contemporary Black New Orleans

The city’s history as a place of contrasts and complexities for African Americans continued in the 20th century. New Orleans’ played a significant part in the anti- discrimination struggle of blacks in the U.S. Black immigrants—mostly from Honduras, many descended from earlier Anglo-Caribbean migrants to Central America—added a notable new presence to New Orleans’s African diaspora. Like other parts of the United States, over the past century the city has also seen other new black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, albeit in small numbers.

While this is the not the place for full elaboration of the politics of civil rights in the city, the gains of the civil rights era opened the way for black political participation and leadership in the late 20th century, and also for the city to nurture and promote New Orleans’s unique black heritage. Such promotion, geared at both locals and tourists, has taken diverse forms, many with government support. Activities have ranged from cultural festivals to the creation of Louis Armstrong Park. Locals and some newcomers also revived a more serious interest in vodun practice, with leaders conducting study trips to Haiti and Benin. Predictably, this interest has coexisted with caricatured or distorted versions of New Orleans’ African-derived religious history, often created mostly for tourist consumption.

Caricatured voodoo, French and Spanish colonial architecture, and overstated legacies of racial tolerance remain easy and enticing stories, even for visitors expressly interested in black history. Perhaps what New Orleans most offers for the understanding of African diaspora history is a compelling reminder that black history in the Americas always came not only from Africa, but from many turns of shared experience, migration, and happenstance across political, social, and geographic borders. Although often starkly delineated by racism, lived black experience was always complicated. Geographically narrow or overly simple explanations of that racial and cultural history rarely suffice, not in New Orleans, not anywhere.

For Further Reading

Campanella, Richard, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans. Lafayette, Louisiana: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2008.

Freddi Williams Evans, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans. Lafayette, Louisiana: University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2011.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Lynell Thomas, “‘Roots Run Deep Here’: The Construction of Black New Orleans in Post-Katrina Tourism Narratives,” American Quarterly 61.3 (September 2009): 749–68.


  1. Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012) p. 74. []

Laura Rosanne Adderley, Tulane University, is a member of the 2013 Local Arrangements Committee. She specializes in comparative black history in the Americas, and the history of slavery and slave trading.