SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Two hundred years ago, New Orleans was at the center of the slave trade in the United States. The city's extensive slave markets' families were often divided up and sold off to different masters. Today, little evidence of what happened in these places and to these people remains. But as Eve Abrams explains, slavery's legacy sits just below the surface.
EVE ABRAMS, BYLINE: Back when cotton was king, New Orleans was its queen city.
ERIN GREENWALD: And slavery and cotton go hand-in-hand. So it is a place where cotton is bought and sold and shipped to and shipped from. And the same is true of the slave trade here.
ABRAMS: Historian Erin Greenwald curated an exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection called Purchased Lives about the domestic slave trade. Greenwald says other southern cities confined the slave trade to a single building or street. Not New Orleans.
GREENWALD: New Orleans was completely saturated.
ABRAMS: Enslaved people were sold in the middle of the business district. They were sold on boats, in French Quarter courtyards and in the most sumptuous room of the most luxurious hotel in the South: the St. Louis Hotel. Today, there is no plaque on the facade of that building to announce an auction block once existed there. In fact, Greenwald says, New Orleans has very few physical markers commemorating this history.
GREENWALD: People's tendency is to celebrate the past. And so it's harder to get, I think, a city to want to commemorate or recognize something negative from the past.
ABRAMS: Not unlike the debate happening now, the flags and symbols of the Confederacy. Slavery broke up countless families. And after it was abolished, people wanted to reunite. But they often had no idea where to start looking. Some placed ads in church-affiliated and black newspapers.
GREENWALD: Some others looking for children that they haven't seen in 30 years don't even know what they look like.
ABRAMS: Well into the 1900s, decades after children, spouses and parents were torn apart, people were still searching.
PAMELA DAVIS-NOLAND: Dear editor, allow me space in your paper to inquire for my mother, Hannah McNear. The last time I saw her was in South Carolina. I was a small girl about 10 years old when I left her. I was brought to Mobile, Ala. about...
HAROLD EVANS: Dear editor, I wish to inquire for my sister, Edna Millsapt, who was carried to Louisiana in 1845 by John Millsapt. She had two children, a boy and a girl. Please address me at...
ABRAMS: Actors Pamela Davis-Noland and Harold X. Evans reading ads placed in a New Orleans paper by people from all over the country on the off chance their loved ones have been sold in a New Orleans slave market. One company, the largest and most powerful slave trader in U.S. history, brought ships of human cargo several times a month to New Orleans. The company was financed by the Federal Bank of the United States and owned by a Tennessean named Isaac Franklin, who with his partners also had offices in Natchez, Miss. and just outside the nation's capital in Alexandria, Va. Historian Erin Greenwald.
GREENWALD: So this is not a story about New Orleans or the South. This is a story about the United States and the foundation of our economy.
ABRAMS: When Franklin retired from slave trading, he was the wealthiest man in the South. He bought six plantations near New Orleans, where today stands one of the most notorious prisons in the country: Angola State Penitentiary, built on land profited from the slave trade. For NPR News, I'm Eve Abrams in New Orleans.
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