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New Orleans was once the center of U.S. slave trade. This artist wants to make sure we don't forget
NEW ORLEANS – Thousands of tourists stream into the French Quarter each year through beautiful Esplanade Avenue, an oak tree-studded stretch known for its Creole cottages. The tremendous trees are a source of shade and date back to the early 1700s.
Until now, there has been little light shed on what happened under these trees, and there remains little evidence the area was once home to one of the largest slave markets in the country — a place where families were divided and where enslaved people were held, sold, and worked.
The city known for Mardi Gras once had one in three residents enslaved, and was the site for the purchase and sale of more than 135,000 people, making it s the center of the U.S. slave trade before the Civil War.
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"America needs the ghosts of slavery to remind us of how our nation was really built," Marcus Brown, an international sculptor, painter, inventor, musician, and avant-garde sound performance artist, told the PBS NewsHour about his "Slavery Trails" installation. "There is a lack of representation about how a historical city like New Orleans was really put together.
Unlike most cities, which had only a single location for slave markets, New Orleans had more than 50 places where slaves were sold. It was a high concentration of complexes that stretched from Esplanade Avenue to the Mississippi River to the central business district.
"Pretty much none of the buildings in New Orleans say 'thank you' to the enslaved people who built them," Brown said. "But the reality is, a lot of these structures were built with slave labor, and a lot of our streets that we walk on in the French Quarter and elsewhere were built in slave labor. We've never addressed it properly."
Part of the reason why the city hadn't previously turned to historical markers or other tools to help tell this story is " that there was not a willingness to look at difficult challenging aspects of New Orleans' history," said Erin Greenwald, a historian and editor of 64 Parishes Magazine. "We in New Orleans have a tendency to celebrate all of the amazing contributions of Black people and descendants of Africans without wanting to look too closely at how it is that those groups of people came here."
"There are a lot of people who think that tourism-related history should focus on the good parts of our history, which is disingenuous," Greenwald added.
In 2018, Greenwald led an effort to develop markers for seven sites involved in the New Orleans slave and trade markets for the city's tricentennial celebration. Before then, there were few existing markers that testified to the history of the slave trade, except one in Congo Square. More efforts have been launched since then, but after 300 years, she admits, "understandably it's a difficult balance."
Brown, an educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), is putting it all out there – albeit in virtual reality. The display is an interactive augmented reality (AR) sculpture series to spread awareness of where enslaved people were physically and to help people become more comfortable with the subject matter while also looking to understand more about it.
He hopes his bright fluorescent pink virtual sculpture will bring attention to slavery and racial violence.
This video from artist Marcus Brown shows part of his new exhibit, which uses pink virtual ghosts to tell the story of slave markets in New Orleans.
People can stand beneath the oaks on Esplanade Avenue on the edge of the French Quarter and activate the display with a special QR code using the Adobe Aero App and a smartphone. A dozen bright pink digital ghosts appear, hovering a few feet above the 'neutral ground,' or median, each made in his likeness. Brown admits the startling pink color has a dual purpose: to celebrate and to signify that "people bled to build New Orleans."
"I have a lot of different lineage in my blood, but everybody sees me as one color, that's why I didn't add any other colors," Brown said. "Everybody sees me as one color and that color is very bright and vibrant. Anywhere I go in the country, I have to be aware that I am that bright walking around."
The self-funded project is at the same location where a free Black man, Solomon Northup, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. It's also the location of one of the city's former domestic slave markets. The newly placed marker now comes to life, like most of Brown's art, with powerful sounds and imagery from the "Slavery Trails" exhibit. A tap on the phone and you'll hear the vivid sounds of Brown playing alto sax and the clanking of Brown forging an iron collar used on slaves.
"It's to show that a lot of people, like me, are descendants of enslaved people and contributed to this legacy," Brown said. "At the opening, one person told me that they were crying at the concept of people being sold … I can imagine it getting worse-when I add women and children, sounds, and sculptures. What will be the emotional impact of that?"
"This survival of the African diaspora in the United States is one of the best heroic underdog stories you could ever tell. I just think it's not being told because that narrative is unacceptable," Brown added. "I hope people get interested in what happened so that they know it's not just like some bogeyman that they don't have a connection to. It is connected to everybody."
Historians say remembering New Orleans' overlooked ties to slavery did not come easily — the city as a whole is essentially a memorial to slavery.
In 2018, in addition to the markers, the city also unveiled the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker Tour, a smartphone app and website tour of sites involved in the slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries. The tour has more than two hours of recorded segments including historical descriptions and readings from interviews with and writings by former slaves.
"It's more fitting now than ever that we uphold and acknowledge the history of our 300-year-old city," Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at an unveiling ceremony for the markers. "This initiative will allow us to honor the lives and dignity of those ancestors who were undoubtedly bought and sold here in New Orleans."
The markers made for the project, unlike state historic markers, are mounted directly on buildings and topped with the project's logo: a Black man, woman, and child around an auction block behind which a white man has raised a gavel.
"It's a very small snippet of history, but it's a start. It was about making sure New Orleans didn't get left behind," said Greenwald, who led the group charged with erecting markers as part of the Tricentennial Cultural and Historical Committee formed by the city that included researchers, authors, musicians, and historians."I really believe that New Orleans saw that it was behind the times in terms of recognizing that history. We were further behind than Charleston, South Carolina. The state of Louisiana doesn't have a Civil Rights Museum but the state of Mississippi does. It was about making sure New Orleans didn't get left behind."
Efforts to personalize the slave trade, like Marcus Brown's "Slavery Trails," will help illustrate just how deep New Orleans' ties to the slave trade are, Greenwald added.
"What Marcus Brown has done is create artwork that connects the kind of abstraction of the slave trade to a human body. I think it's really fantastic and I'd like to see it happen more," Greenwald said. "It's harder to look away."
"When you have a city like New Orleans with the tourism industry that we have, it's a unique opportunity for people to learn something here and try to understand what that learning means for their own lives and their own communities," Greenwald said.
Brown says the next step for his exhibit is to sell three-dimensional versions of artwork depicting himself to fund other interactive installations across the city and perhaps the country. He'll sell the self-portrait sculptures at the same price he would have been sold had he been enslaved: between $14,000 and $180,000 in today's dollars.
Brown says the "beautiful and beautifully horrible" installation was even overwhelming for him but considers it one of his most important works of art.
"I think there's a misconception that Black people want to talk about slavery all the time, but that's not really true. It is not a joyful thing for us. We've never addressed it properly and we're just now starting to tell the truth about what happened here," Brown said. "People don't want the narrative to be out there. A lot of people who disagree with me about having these markers are people who want to be the hero of their own narrative versus telling the truth about slavery."