Numerous 19th-century travelers who frequented New Orleans for business and pleasure described the slave auction block in St. Louis Hotel. Sensationalism aside, visitors recorded their surprise at the grandeur and spectacle of the Hotel’s exchange area, which functioned as a sort of auction theater compared to the clandestine, modest showrooms of most other Southern cities’ 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.
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.
Built around 1841, the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange was revered for its beautiful architecture featuring a large rotunda lined with exquisite designs, decorative walls, and columns which weaved throughout the entire building. The hotel owners 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. Many prominent politicians, planters, and businessmen from around the country stayed at the St. Louis Hotel and attended its extravagant balls. Seven auctioneers took turns auctioning human lives in French, Spanish, and English, while free visitors bid, sipped drinks, played billiards, and admired the St. Louis Hotels’s ostentatious, decorative elements.
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 slave auctions took place on the street, the levee, and in privately-owned slave pens and homes, St. Louis Hotel’s auctions attracted widespread attention and boasted large newspaper advertisements.
Live auctions of enslaved persons typically occurred as a part of the estate of a wealthy slaveholder who had died or to collect money for a slaveholder’s debts. Auctions were held every Saturday under the domed rotundas of several extravagant hotels, including St. Louis Hotel. Sometimes small-time dealers would sell enslaved persons, usually the youngest and strongest, to such large auctions around the city, including those held at the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange.
Slave traders forced enslaved people to stand on top of a large wooden stage called a slave block and an auctioneer would present the enslaved to the audience. The auctioneer stressed all the person’s physical attributes such as height, strength, or health, and encourage audience members to make the highest bid. Enslaved individuals were typically sold according to 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 included 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 papers, and then the individual would be handed over to the buyer as property, continuing their life of enslavement.