The Big 300
Words by Sarah Pitts
Photos from The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Waldemar S. Nelson
Here we are, in 2018, celebrating the tri-centennial of New Orleans. It almost defies belief that this colorful, spirited, resilient, and uniquely non-American American city has stood for only three hundred years. Ours is a city that seems, at times, more myth than reality. A city stirred by the maddening currents of creativity, caught in the hot, flaring crosswinds of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. And so we take this moment to look back at the diverse influences—the nations, the natural disasters, the art, the people—that have made the city unlike any other, as we also look to our future, which has been shaped so distinctly and irrevocably by our past.
It was in 1718 that the French founded La Nouvelle-Orléans, a city fated to be a pivotal player in the colonial struggles of the years to come. Perfectly situated as an international harbor at the mouth of the Mississippi, it was a much-coveted access point to the rest of the continent, as well as an invaluable port for the most lucrative business of the time: the Atlantic slave trade. African chattel slavery in this region pre-dates the establishment of the city, and the French channeled thousands of enslaved people into New Orleans from Africa. Our city, along with our country, was founded on inequality and racism, shadows we still struggle to shed today. Although this is a difficult piece of our history to acknowledge, we must acknowledge it. Only by shining light into the darkness of our past can we hope to dispel it for future generations.
In 1722, just months after New Orleans was chosen as the capital city of French Louisiana, a hurricane wiped out most of the city. But the city has always been defined by its resilience, and so, we rebuilt and recovered. But history repeats itself. Not long after, the two Great Fires of the eighteenth century added themselves to the list of disasters from which the city has suffered and recovered. Yet through all the fires, New Orleans culture flourished and the territory remained a coveted one—leading to the Louisiana Purchase and integration into the United States.
This acquisition coincided with the Haitian Revolution, where the enslaved black population was more than double the population of whites and free people of color, and where conditions of slavery were harsh. Many Haitians (both black and white) fled the island for New Orleans, where they contributed to the rebuilding effort following the second Great Fire. Thus, the “Creole” was born: not fully American, not fully European, not fully African—one hundred percent New Orleanian. A vibrant culture all its own developed as French, Spanish, African, Haitian, Cajun, and Native American descendants all mingled together, and Creole language, food, music, and tradition flourished.
The city grew exponentially, attracting a polyglot population that continuously compounded the intersectional identities of the city. And, of course, we can’t talk about culture in New Orleans without talking about Mardi Gras—our famed Creole “Carnaval.” The grand celebration was born with the landing of the French but was quickly abolished when the Spanish took control; however, the spirit of New Orleans has never been successfully suppressed. This city has always challenged the power structures that attempt to dominate it—that’s the New Orleanian essence. Combating systemic injustice through dance, music, and happiness in the face of oppression has always been our great defiance.
Speaking of defiance, it would be utterly remiss if we didn’t mention jazz—that Voodoo rhythm born of the beautiful clash between the instruments and rhythms of Africa and Europe. Through the jubilant, pulsing, unrestrained rhythms of jazz, slaves in New Orleans manifested an aural freedom despite their physical chains. It was music that spoke to all, regardless of the color of their skin. This festive anarchy invited celebrations of life and liberation, and the beat of the city was born in the mixing and mingling of the rhythms of many peoples and cultures. That is the song of New Orleans.
But where there is beauty, there is also pain. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina is unparalleled in our city’s history. As we celebrate these three hundred years, we celebrate the resilience of this city, but we also mourn the suffering on which our resilience makes its name. Katrina displaced families who had lived in New Orleans for centuries, ravaged homes and buildings, and took human lives with impunity. The poorest among us—a disproportionate amount of African Americans, many of whom had never been afforded the opportunities or resources to pull themselves from an economically and socially disadvantaged past—were hit the hardest by the natural disaster. Impoverished households lacked the means to escape the hurricane’s path of devastation and made up a significant number of the death toll. Let us take a moment of silence to observe these lives of our fellow women and men, lives so unfairly lost.
Although we end on a somber note, there is so much to celebrate—there always is when you’re in the Big Easy. We are still recovering from past racial injustices and natural disasters, which continue to shape our present, but we are also looking ever-forward. If any vital detail has been left out—such as the history and mystery of Voodoo culture, the world-famous Cajun cuisine, the bustling service industry that forms our backbone, the varied and vibrant visual arts, the unique and intricate architectural style—it is because these things could fill their own speeches that could each span three hundred years. So a toast to all of it—the people, the culture, the city.