Editors Note: New Orleans is a city that is considered to be one of the top tourist destinations in the United States, receiving almost 20 million tourists a year. One of those reasons is the unique architectural styles found throughout the city, such as French influence and shotgun homes. Another is the unique style of city planning that began in Jackson square and follows the form of the Mississippi River. The history of the unique architectural styles is something New Orleans natives and those who visit should be informed on — everything from street tiles to not-so-tall buildings. This piece was originally published on May 23, 2017.
Behind the façades of historic French Quarter homes lie the remains of a history the city has chosen to hide from its visitors. Visitors marvel at the distinct European influence, the colonization that created New Orleans. However, they often fail to notice the African influence that shaped the culture and physically built this historic city.
Similarly, the island of Saint-Louis du Sénégal is a French colonial port town, touted as a tourist destination for its French architecture and influence. Although this city is in Africa, its African culture and history are often ignored in favor of a European perspective. These two cities mirror each other across the Atlantic, each a product of both French colonization and a rich African heritage. Why is one quality exploited to attract tourists and the other pushed into the background?
A Quick History Lesson
France’s love affair with New Orleans grew out of its occupation of Saint-Louis du Sénégal in Africa’s Senegambia region. The French settled on the African island in 1659 and used it as a trading post to take part in the new Atlantic slave trade. About four decades later, the French founded Louisiana with hopes to grow tobacco, cotton, and sugar in the New World.
By the 1720s, the French Company of the Indies was the middle man in the slave trade between Saint-Louis du Sénégal and New Orleans. Several thousand humans from the greater Senegambia region were sent to Louisiana as slaves from 1719-1820 (Hall). In New Orleans, these Senegambians made up the majority of the enslaved population, as shown in Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s genealogy research. These two French colonial cultures actively interacted with each other in other ways, too, most visibly in architecture.
Colonization is the, “action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area” (Oxford Dictionary). The African captives who were shipped to Louisiana to serve as slaves brought their knowledge of similar climate, animals and crops to this new continent.
Historian Lawrence N. Powell recognizes that, “France may have founded Louisiana as we know it, but it was slaves from Senegal and Congo who laid the foundation.” (Powell, page 74). In order to understand the New Orleans of today, one must examine the city’s connection to Saint-Louis du Sénégal.
Tourism Paints a Picture
Today, New Orleans’s and Saint-Louis du Sénégal’s tourism departments advertise their cities as exotic, romantic, magical cities. New Orleans is seen as a city unlike any other in the United States and is often compared to European cities. The official tourism website for New Orleans calls it, “One of the world’s most fascinating cities…one of America’s most culturally and historically-rich destinations.” (New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation).
The creole culture of New Orleans that incorporates both African and European influences makes the city seem like an “exotic” destination. But when one walks through the streets of the French Quarter, they do not think of the African slaves, the city’s founding population, who built and created the unique New Orleans culture we know today. Instead, tourism promotes the French and Spanish influence on the city, surviving most notably today in the form of architecture.
The official tourism website for Saint-Louis du Sénégal boasts the city’s French history, highlighting the French colonial architecture and Catholic influence. The website briefly touches on its African inhabitants but focuses on the more “elegant” European influence; forgetting that the city is, in fact, in Africa.
The city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, under the criteria stating, “The Island of Saint-Louis, a former capital of West Africa, is an outstanding example of a colonial city, characterized by its particular natural setting, and it illustrates the development of colonial government in this region.” (UNESCO).
The tourism website for New Orleans does a better job at connecting the French colonial history to the history of the Africans, both enslaved and free, and to the history and culture of the Native Americans living in Louisiana before the French arrived. However, tourism for the city of New Orleans still places most of its focus on the European influence on the city.
An article posted on New Orleans’s tourism website recognizes that, “New Orleans is a place where Africans, both slave and free, and American Indians shared their cultures and intermingled with European settlers. Encouraged by the French government, this strategy [produced] a durable culture in a difficult place.” (Hirsch and Logsdon). While the African and Native American cultures are recognized, the authors still give credit to the Europeans for ‘allowing’ the unique culture to form.
What Really Remains of the French Influence?
New Orleans and Saint-Louis actively interacted with each other during their simultaneous lives as French colonial cities, especially in the 18th century. The influence of the French in New Orleans and Saint-Louis permeated all aspects of culture, but the influence is most noticeable today in the remnants of the once highly used French language and the distinct French colonial architecture. In New Orleans, we celebrate our French history, but are we really French?
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a historian who focuses on Louisiana’s colonial and slave histories, noted in a 2005 interview that, “French Louisiana has been somewhat glorified by historians. There’s this identification with France among people in Louisiana. And it’s – the French don’t identify with Louisiana, but the Louisianans identify with France.” Why are Louisianans so hung up on this French identity? It’s as if there is, “less of a colonial heritage from France than an ideology of Frenchness” (Sublette).
The French language is still present in both cities and used heavily in promoting tourism, however very few locals from each city actually speak French. While French is the official language of Sénégal, Wolof and other African languages are most widely spoken. According to dialect research compiled by Jacques Leclerc, “French remains a foreign language and that it would be spoken by only 15% to 20% of Senegalese and barely 1% to 2% of Senegalese women.” (Leclerc).
A present-day instance of colonialism is the fact that Saint-Louis’s official tourism website is in French. Given the fact only 15-20% of Senegalese speak the language, the vast majority of Saint-Louis’s citizens cannot read the official tourism website for their city. Similarly, New Orleans’s motto, “Laissez les bon temps rouler,” is in French. However, less than 2% of the New Orleans population today speaks French in their homes, meaning most can’t even pronounce this famous phrase.
French colonial architecture gives Saint-Louis du Sénégal a “New Orleans feel.” but how French is the architecture the two cities seem to share? Today very few French colonial style buildings are still standing in Saint-Louis, and few were preserved as well as those in New Orleans. This fact questions the intent of Saint-Louis’s official tourism website. A large amount of the standing French colonial architecture is run down and unusable, so it’s questionable at best to use these buildings as the focal point of the city’s tourism.
A panorama photo from 1908 of Saint-Louis, above, shows the lack, even then, of French colonial architecture most areas. While there are incredible examples of architecture very similar to buildings in New Orleans (comparison above), Saint-Louis’s architecture takes a backseat to its African culture, which is what should be emphasized by the city’s tourism website.
One of the oldest original buildings showing French colonial architecture in New Orleans is Madame John’s Legacy, built in 1788. The Louisiana State Museum recognizes Madame John’s Legacy as, “one of the best examples of French colonial architecture in North America.”
This building, however, does not look like the majority of the buildings that line the French Quarter streets. In reality, many of the French Quarter buildings seen today were built during the Spanish rule and may have lost their true French colonial origins. Calling these buildings French is a projection of how the city wants to be seen, not what it was really like during the French rule.
While the architecture may not be completely French, the fleur de lis symbol which adorns many New Orleans buildings is. The fleur de lis has come to signify French influence all over the world, especially in New Orleans. The city has adopted the symbol of French supremacy and it can now be seen nearly everywhere, on flags, shirts, jewelry and New Orleans homes. New Orleans’s tourism website uses it in their logo and throughout their official New Orleans online shop, ignoring its dark past.
In colonial New Orleans, the fleur de lis was branded onto runaway slaves as a symbol of the monarchy and as a warning if the slave tried to run away again. It has now become a symbol of unity, something left over from the city’s colonial past whose original significance has been forgotten (Yates).
One other remnant of New Orleans’s colonial past is the slave quarters built in the 18th and 19th centuries in courtyards behind main buildings lining the French Quarter streets. A primary example of this comes from the property history of the Hermann-Grima home at 820 St. Louis Steet, found in the Vieux Carré Survey. The first record of this lot is in 1722, and a sale in 1816 describes the property as, “the main house on the front of said lot and all other buildings on interior of said lot” (The Historic New Orleans Collection).
One of the “other buildings” in the property’s description is a slave quarters. The home and slave quarters are still standing in the French Quarter and are now a museum, where, “historians have researched multiple generations who have inhabited 820 St. Louis Street, both free and enslaved” (Hermann-Grima & Gallier Historic Houses).
This museum is an infrequent example of the acknowledgement of slave history in New Orleans. Slave quarters like these are still standing in many courtyards off the street view throughout the French Quarter. There are no signs commemorating the enslaved Africans who resided in these historic buildings. Visitors to New Orleans may have no idea that these buildings are still standing, the view of the beautiful “French” architecture erasing a whole population from their minds.
From the view of the people being conquered and removed from their homeland, colonialism does not make for a happy history. Cities like New Orleans and Saint-Louis to this day celebrate their colonial inhabitants but push the dark past of the enslaved and conquered people to the side. The mixed creole cultures are recognized, but rarely are histories devoted to the conquered people told.
In New Orleans, there are signs recognizing the Spanish rule as well as plaques commemorating French buildings and history, but there are few reminders of the African, Senegambian slaves who built and largely inhabited the city.
An NPR segment titled “Remembering New Orleans’s Overlooked Ties to Slavery” dives into the issue of lack of physical markers commemorating slavery in the city. Historian Erin Greenwald noted, “New Orleans has very few physical markers commemorating this history. 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.”
It’s somewhat understandable why New Orleans has few reminders of its dark past: no tourist wants to be reminded of the terrors of slavery while partying on Bourbon Street. But as much as they want to see New Orleans as a place to get away from their troubles, it is important to remember that New Orleans has had troubles of her own.
In Saint-Louis, a statue of General Faidherbe, governor of French West Africa during its colonial period (1854-1865), stands in a central park with an inscription reading, in French, “To Louis Faidherbe, Senegal grateful.” (Ngom). Senegalese activists are rightfully upset, questioning, “has colonization been detrimental or positive for Senegal?” (Ngom).
This statue is another example of the celebration of French colonialism that pushes African culture and influence to the background, this time on the other side of the ocean. It sends a message to the vast majority of Africans in Saint-Louis that no matter how many years pass, their French oppressors will still be credited with the survival and culture of their city.
Throughout the French colonial period, the cities of New Orleans and Saint-Louis du Senegal grew similarly, with cultures shaped by the mixing of European and African influences. Today, the tourism language for both cities highlights the architecture influenced by the Europeans and built by the Africans. The cities credit the French for their “glorious” and “elegant” pasts, while the African influence is commonly overlooked.
However, much of what is sold by these tourism websites is not always the complete truth. Architecture plays a major role in the romanticizing of colonization by official tourism departments because it is a standing reminder of wealthy cities. However, only small areas of New Orleans and Saint-Louis were inhabited by the rich, thus what stands today excludes the majority of citizens who deserve to be remembered.
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