The Levee: Gateway to Uncertainty

In his book, Soul by Soul, Walter Johnson writes that during the mid-1800’s the port of New Orleans was packed so tightly with ships that one could walk deck to deck from one end of the city to the other. All along the docks, ships were unloading and loading cargo daily. New Orleans had become an epicenter for exporting and importing cotton, sugar, tobacco, clothes, textiles, guns, and other goods on a daily basis. Among the goods being imported was, also, human cargo ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

Imagine, being forced into a life of fear under the forced rule of another, losing your home, your family, and your hope. As you exit the ship that has brought you into a new place you realize you are stuck learning to embrace uncertainty. Your life, in an instant, is thrown into free-fall mode, not knowing whether you will be alive to see tomorrow or ever to enjoy the feeling of freedom. As you turn to take one last look at the ship that has brought you to your new home you realize what’s done is done and you must look ahead.

This is probably how the enslaved woman who debarked that ship felt as she landed on the river in New Orleans in January of 1818. Her name was Rachel. Rachel endured six weeks on the slave ship Temperance after being purchased for consignment in Baltimore by merchant David Anderson. As Rachel climbed over the top of the levee one of the first things encountered was a wooden post with a sign nailed to the post that read, MASPERO’S COFFEE HOUSE…PETER MASPERO AUCTIONEER…MERCHANDISE, REAL ESTATE, AND SLAVES IN CHARTRES ST. This sign was the immediate reminder of what an enslaved woman would be faced with in the Deep South. Rachel would eventually be sold at Maspero’s “coffee house”.

As Rachel looked across the levee, she witnessed New Orleans, the fourth largest city of the United States, home to about 40,000 people at the time. As she descended the levee, she most likely saw “galley slaves”, enslaved people whose punishment for trying to run away was to build up the levee to protect the city from floods of the river.

The voyage to the city of New Orleans was often a very treacherous and frightening experience for many enslaved persons. The danger of yellow fever, cholera, and small pox aboard cargo vessels was a very real occurrence which caused the deaths of many poor souls who contracted the deadly diseases. In Solomon Northrup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave, he documents the voyage he and his fellow slaves made aboard the cargo ship Orleans in 1841. Upon his immediate arrival in New Orleans, Northup contracted small pox from a fellow slave who died from the disease on the ship. For over two weeks Northup suffered the effects of the disease which almost took his life as it did for so many others; permanently scarring him.

Although Rachel came to New Orleans alone, this does not mean she did not have a family, including a husband and children. Slave-holders worked to separate families, in order to increase productivity among enslaved females, who would not have to sacrifice labor to care for their children.

Rachel and the other men who landed in New Orleans aboard the Temperance eventually were brought to Maspero’s coffee house, a place notoriously known for slave auctions. It is at Maspero’s that Rachel is put up for auction and was purchased by William Finz, for about $800, or around $15,000 today. Rachel was then brought by Finz along with another enslaved person he bought that day, up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At this point, Rachel and her story, disappear from historical documents.

Woldenberg Park, with its full view of the French Quarter and close proximity to the Mississippi River, serves as an example of the first stop that enslaved people made after entering the city of New Orleans. From here, these unfortunate individuals were herded into different "slave pens" around the city to wait to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.