“Confined in the Dungeons”: Orleans Parish Prison and Self-Emancipated People

Located in Treme, the original Orleans Parish Prison stood where the Municipal Auditorium and Louis Armstrong Park stand today. From the 1830s to 1895, the prison housed individuals accused of crimes, including enslaved people who attempted to free themselves from bondage. [1]

The nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements in the images below come from Freedom on the Move, a database of fugitive slave advertisements including those placed by jailors appealing to enslavers to claim ownership of runaways. If someone accused a Black person in New Orleans of running away from slavery, jailors imprisoned them until their enslaver paid the bond. Black people, enslaved or free, lived under the constant threat of incarceration. Laws required free people of color to carry court-issued documents proving free status, known as freedom papers. The failure to show freedom papers at the request of any white person could result in imprisonment or enslavement. [2]

In 1895, The Times-Picayune described Orleans Parish Prison as “the place where refractory slaves were sent to receive a dose of cat o’nine tails, or to be confined in the dungeons… in extreme cases the rebellious blacks were kept immured in the dark cells on a diet of bread and water until reduced to the proper degree of submission.” [3] Jailors subjected enslaved people to degrading and torturous prison conditions as a punishment for running away.

It is not known exactly how many enslaved people spent time locked away behind these now forsaken walls. Nonetheless, the Orleans Parish Prison jailors’ advertisements reveal a lot of information about self-emancipated people and their experiences of physical escape to resist punishment, violence, and the other brutal conditions of slavery. [4] Names, physical descriptions, skills, family connections, and many more personal and individual characteristics surface in the advertisements. We can also learn how long a self-emancipated person lived outside of the confinements of slavery. During this time, self-emancipated people fostered a greater sense of privacy, autonomy, and freedom.

Even though many self-emancipated people ended up in bondage once again in the Orleans Parish Prison, their efforts show how enslaved people resisted enslavement and created their own freedom.



Treme Street & Rue Saint Pierre, New Orleans, LA