New Orleanians have always had a relaxed attitude about many things other cities deem illegal or immoral. Take go cups for example. But there’s another part of our cultural history that is much darker than simply drinking alcohol while walking about our streets. It’s often been portrayed as one of our more colorful, even exotic, cultural activities back in the day – prostitution in Storyville. But much of what was going on in Storyville then would have a different name now; today it is called human trafficking.
Laura Murphy, the Director of the Loyola University Modern Slavery Research Project, says there’s a very legal definition of human trafficking. “By law, and that is by UN definition and by United States legislation and by state law, the definition of human trafficking is when someone is compelled to work through force, fraud or coercion. One usual definition is to think of it as people who are forced to work without pay, under threat of violence and without the ability to escape.”
Now Murphy knows this city well. She’s no prude. How can you be growing up in this town? Raised in Luling, on the West Bank, she attended Hahnville High, then LSU, going on to get her master’s degree at Syracuse University, specializing in African literature and history. She’s open minded and accepting of alternate lifestyles, as most are in this City that Care Forgot. But even she was shocked when, researching for her doctorate, she came upon some information that totally changed her perspective.
“I did a Ph. D at Harvard in African and African American studies and my focus was on historical slavery in Africa,” she says. “A couple of years into that project, I was surfing the web and ran across an article in the New York Times about women who were being trafficked. Though I had seen prostitution my whole life, it hadn’t occurred to me how dire it was and I suddenly realized that what I was looking at was modern-day slavery. And it shocked me that I was talking about slavery in the past and not addressing slavery in the present.”
So, after 14 years away from the New Orleans area, some time living in China and in Africa, Murphy returned to New Orleans to join the faculty of Loyola University. Now she is deeply involved in a subject some know little about and others prefer not to think about at all. Because it is extremely difficult to gather information about modern-day slavery and human trafficking, Murphy applied for and has just received a grant to try to understand what is happening in New Orleans.
“The grant I received is a small grant but enough to get the job started to produce a white paper which essentially assesses what we know today about what’s going on in the southeast Louisiana region,” she explains. “Then we can talk about what future research and future resources we need.”
In the past few weeks, in 76 cities across the country including New Orleans, the FBI and local law enforcement personnel arrested 152 people and recovered more than 100 children forced into prostitution. But, says Murphy, these are not the only victims of human trafficking.
“Labor trafficking around the country is getting far too little attention,” she says. “There are thousands of people in our country exploited for their labor; immigrants and people from the United States who are being overlooked. We need to pay much more attention to grown adults, men, laborers and immigrants who, desperate for work, are vulnerable to exploitation. We need to do a much better job of looking at that.”
To find out more about LoyolaUniversity’s Modern Slavery Research Project, contact Laura Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org