St. Louis Hotel & Exchange: Auctioning off Lives

The St. Louis Hotel’s slave auction block has been written about by numerous travelers who frequented New Orleans for business and pleasure. Sensationalism aside, visitors seem to have been surprised by the grandeur and spectacle of the Hotel’s exchange area, which functioned as a sort of theater compared to the clandestine, modest showrooms of most other Southern slave markets. Today the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel stands on the site of the former exchange where so many families were separated and lives changed.

Built around 1841, the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange was revered for its beautiful architecture that featured a large rotunda lined with exquisite designs, decorative walls and columns which weaved throughout the entire building. Many prominent people such as politicians, planters, and businessmen from around the country came to stay at the St. Louis Hotel and attend its extravagant balls. The hotel had been built on a site that had previously been occupied by several different exchange “coffee shops,” which sold coffee in the morning, alcohol at night, and enslaved people six days a week. Seven auctioneers took turns auctioning human lives in French, Spanish, and English, while free visitors bid, sipped drinks, played billiards, and admired the institution’s ostentatious, decorative elements.

Later, the St. Louis Hotel‘s lobby was used as a space for many gatherings such as speeches, business meetings, and auctions. The auctions were held in the hotel’s lobby and oversaw the sale of such possessions as paintings, goods, and even human beings. While the majority of sales of enslaved people place in private homes, on the street, the levee, and in aforementioned privately-owned slave pens, auctions attracted attention and boasted large newspaper advertisements.

Most live auctions organized for larger sales, generally enslaved persons that made up the estate of a wealthy slaveholder who had died, or to collect money for someone’s debts. Auctions were held every Saturday under the domed rotundas of several extravagant hotels. Sometimes small-time dealers would sell enslaved persons, usually the youngest and strongest, to auctions around the city such as those held at the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange.

The enslaved people would be made to stand on top of a large wooden stage called a slave block and an auctioneer would present the slave to the audience. The auctioneer would stress on all the person’s physical such as height, strength, or health, and wait until someone made the highest bid. Enslaved individuals were typically sold by racial categories, which were recorded in sale records, but could often be fictions created by slave traders depending on the appearance of those for sale. Common racial categories were negro (black), mulatto (biracial), griffe (of African and Native-American descent), quadroon (¼ black), and octaroon (⅛ black). From there, the slave’s dealer would conduct a business transaction with the buyer, draw up a bill of sale, sign some papers, and then the individual would be handed over to the buyer to be entered into a life of enslavement.

Today, if you face the Chartres side of the Omni Royale Orleans Hotel, above the columns located near the parking garage, the word “CHANGE” is clearly visible. Originally there was a sign that read, “NEW ORLEANS EXCHANGE.” This is the only remnant of the old St. Louis Hotel and now serves as a constant reminder of the location’s telling past.