The Hermann-Grima House at 820 St. Louis Street, which today operates as an historic house museum, was a site of enslavement from its construction in 1831 through the Civil War. At least sixty people of African descent served both the Hermann and Grima families in a variety of capacities.
The first owner of the home, for whom it was built, was Samuel Hermann, a German-born commodities broker. Félix Grima, his wife Adelaide, and their four children moved into the home in 1844, and members of the family remained here until 1921.
One of the many ways Hermann earned a living was by acting as an agent and broker for plantation owners. Planters obtained goods, cash, and credit from a local New Orleans factor, such as Hermann, and pledged sufficient land and enslaved people as collateral. As a notary, Grima spent day after day witnessing and documenting the sales of enslaved people. Therefore, were it not for the booming slave market in 19th-century New Orleans, neither Hermann nor Grima would have had the means to afford the house you are looking at now.
In early 1831, Hermann hired Virginian William Brand to build the main house for his family and at least one other building on the property, a three-story brick structure. While Brand’s name appears on the contract, the actual construction of these buildings was almost certainly completed by enslaved bricklayers owned by Brand.
The second and smaller of the brick structures is adjacent to the large courtyard behind the main house; in the 19th century, its upper floors served as housing for the men, women, and children enslaved by the Hermanns and Grimas. On the ground floor are four workrooms, where most of the enslaved people would spend their waking hours. These include an ironing room, a wine room, a scullery (or washroom), and a hearth kitchen.
In an urban setting such as this one, enslaved men and women working in and just off the courtyard could be under constant supervision—in this case, from the second-floor balcony on the back of the house. For the Hermanns and, beginning in 1844 after the sale of the home, the Grimas, this was another means of exercising control over them and threatening punishment.
Still, enslaved people found creative ways to protest their bondage: breaking tools, working slowly, purposeful errors, intentional forgetfulness or clumsiness, theft, and, most importantly, running to freedom. In the 1860 census, four of the six people enslaved by Félix Grima are listed as “fugitive from the state.” Sam Cunningham, a man enslaved by Samuel Hermann Jr. (but listed as living at this address on an 1838 tax record) was jailed for running away. A newspaper advertisement likely referring to Sam describes him as “an elegant dresser” with “4 gold rings on his left hand” and “a broach,” implying that he was as well dressed as an urban enslaved man might be.
View the images below to learn more about how enslaved people lived and worked in this space. Then, visit the next stop on this tour to learn more about one family of enslaved people who once lived in the Hermann-Grima house until gaining their freedom and a home of their own just a few blocks away on 727-729 Burgundy Street.