Reporter Brian Palmer is black. Editor Erin Hollaway Palmer is white. Since July 4, the Richmond, Virginia-based husband and wife have been driving west and farther south to trace the routes white salesmen used to distribute enslaved blacks, learn about Brian’s formerly enslaved ancestors—and explore Erin’s Confederate ones.
In Part 3 of this Colorlines series, Erin struggles to explain why—”precisely”—she feels “not only rage but shame when confronted with living, breathing Confederate sympathizers and antebellum apologists.” And the Palmers visit a New Orleans exhibit that includes the shipping record of Henry, an enslaved black 2-year-old, and the sales record for Solomon Northup, the freedman who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841.
Part 3. July 10: New Orleans, Louisiana
I wake with a start early this morning, our first in New Orleans, and can’t get back to sleep. We arrived around 8 o’clock last night after taking the slow route from Montgomery—long miles through green, gently rolling countryside and a smattering of small towns—and were up late, tweaking our blog post. As Brian and I talked, I became increasingly frustrated with my inability to explain why, precisely, I feel not only rage but shame when confronted with living, breathing Confederate sympathizers and antebellum apologists. Does my whiteness make me complicit? Not necessarily—but my inability to confront them does. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I’ve read about slavery and the Civil War, about Reconstruction and its violent destruction, about Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights. It doesn’t matter that I have history on my side, in the sense that I accept the reality of the past, not a mythic version of it—I find myself choking on the truth in the face of people who appear to have devoted much time and energy to denying it.
Brian and I have both been to New Orleans before. In fact, I lived here as a struggling graduate student about 15 years ago, so I’ve had my fill of po’boys and cheap G&Ts in plastic cups. (Brian, however, says he can always go for another po’boy or two.) We’re free to wander the city without the pressure of sightseeing. And we know exactly where we want to go: the Historic New Orleans Collection, where “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865” is on view until July 18. A friend of mine from grad school, who grew up in the Bywater, had told us about the exhibit, which had moved him to tears.
After making our way past the schlock shops near the French Market, the block-long line of tourists awaiting admission to the Café du Monde, and the triumphalist equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in front of the St. Louis Cathedral, we’re relieved to enter the Collection’s cool, echoey space. Strange as it may sound, I’m at ease here after a week on the road in what often felt like hostile territory. By “at ease,” I mean in my element. We’re dealing with reality here, as devastating as it may be. It’s not a question of perspective, of opposing viewpoints, of how you feel about the past, of what you choose to see or not see.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, after the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808, one million people were sold from the Upper to the Lower South. Many were shipped from ports in Virginia—Alexandria, Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, Hampton, Portsmouth, all places we’ve come to know in the past few years—to New Orleans, or forced to walk, chained together in coffles. Some walked all the way; others were loaded onto steamboats or into specially designed railcars. Families were routinely separated, most never to be reunited again.
Ships’ manifests are among the original documents on display in the exhibition. One of the first you come to is that of the Hibernia, which steamed south from Louisville, Kentucky, bound for New Orleans, on November 18, 1831, with 63 enslaved people aboard. All were Virginia natives, and most were taken from counties that Brian and I drove through just a few days ago: Sam Harris, age 45, negro, Nelson City, Va; Mariah & two children, age 28, negrace [sic], Nelson, Va; Henry, age 2, negro, Nelson, Va; Harry, age 18, negro, Buckingham, Va.
Look again at little Henry—he was two years old, listed on a line by himself. Had he been sold away from his mother and father, from brothers and sisters? Could he have walked the hundreds of miles from Nelson County, Virginia, to Louisville, or did someone carry him? If so, who?
The exhibit also features documents related to “Plat Hamilton,” the name assigned to Solomon Northup, a free man, after he was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841. A “notarized act of sale” lists him as a “griffe”—a term used to describe someone who was either three-quarters black and one-quarter white or of black and Native American parentage—with a value of $900. The manifest of the brig Orleans, which took three weeks to sail from Richmond to New Orleans, gives his age (26), his height (5’7”), and his complexion (“yellow”). There are 40 other humans listed on this one ship. We know Northup’s story only because he eventually regained his freedom—but what of the others? Where did they end up, and what were they forced to endure? Did they live to see Emancipation?
If they did, they might have placed an advertisement like this one, which ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate, an African-American Methodist newspaper published in New Orleans from 1877 to 1929. This ad appeared on September 10, 1880—more than 15 years after the end of the Civil War:
Mr. Editor—I desire to inquire for my brother. He belonged to one Shars (I do not know his first name) of Wytheville, Va. Brother’s name is Arthur Zacheriah Tolaver. Mother’s name was Millie. She belonged to John Woort at the time my brother was sold to Bob Sanders, a negro trader, who took him to New Orleans. Brother worked and bought himself. He was living in New Orleans the last I heard from him—he sent me a small tin box with $100 in it. He was the oldest child and I am the youngest. I was taken away from all my people. Mother is dead. Brother was a member of the M.E. church. Please address me at Lavernia, Texas. —Letitia E. Rodgers
“I was taken away from all my people.” I think this is what I need to remember the next time I’m tempted to flee, rather than engage, today’s defenders of the Confederacy. Whether your family owned slaves or not is beside the point. Your ancestors—mine too, perhaps—may have been “good people,” and they may have been “protecting their families,” but they were nonetheless propping up a racist regime whose sine qua non was slavery—an institution that systematically destroyed other families. The evidence is right there on the walls, in almost overwhelming abundance.
There’s almost no evidence in the city itself. New Orleans was the largest slave market in the country prior to the Civil War. “Where there was commerce, there were slave traders,” reads one of the exhibition labels—but you would never know it if you weren’t armed with archival information. The 19th-century Banks’ Arcade on Magazine Street, now home to the St. James Hotel, was the site of slave auctions—something that does not figure on the hotel’s website or on the plaque out front.
Instead, the St. James touts its “West Indies décor,” an “homage to the Caribbean sugar and coffee trade past of its historic building,” with no reference to the enslaved people who made that trade possible. This is precisely the kind of selective storytelling that allows us to avoid confronting the brutality of our past. More perniciously, it prevents us from assessing the damage that was done, accepting responsibility for it, and determining how we might begin to repair it.
Brian Palmer is a freelance visual journalist and educator living in Richmond, Virginia. Palmer has been on the photography and editorial staffs at The Village Voice, US News & World Report and Fortune, and he’s been an on-air correspondent for CNN. Palmer’s photographs have appeared in the New York Times, Pixel Press, Politiken, Die Zeit, and other outlets. He has contributed video to PBS, ABC World News, and MTV News & Docs, and he has written for Mother Jones, Huffington Post, the Nation Investigative Fund, The Root among other news outlets. In 2016 he will teach at Columbia Journalism School.
Erin Hollaway Palmer is an editor, writer and educator living in Richmond. She edits for websites and publications and serves as a tutor at Literacy for Life in Williamsburg. Hollaway Palmer moved to Virginia in 2013 with her husband to produce “Make the Ground Talk,” a documentary that evokes life in a historic black community that was uprooted during World War II to build a naval base, now a top-secret U.S. military installation. Hollaway Palmer has been a managing editor for Parade and National Geographic Adventure magazines.