Everyone knows you go to New Orleans to stroll through the French Quarter, savor the renowned cuisine, and listen to jazz in its very cradle. Much of that New Orleans’ experience—whether food, music, or architecture—flows from the city’s African-American heritage, and a little searching can take the visitor behind the tourist façades and back into a history that makes New Orleans a one-of-a-kind city.
"People looking for the real New Orleans will find it in Tremé," said Chris Mathews, Ph.D., an archaeologist who until last year was head of the Greater New Orleans Archaeology Project at the University of New Orleans. Mathews dug deep into the city’s past to give a voice to the previously voiceless. In 1999 his excavations brought to light thousands of artifacts dating back to the 1700s that shed new light on Tremé, a district that some residents claim is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. Mathews says that what makes New Orleans New Orleans is its rich racial and ethnic background.
"New Orleans was a backwater during the 18th century," said Mathews, who is now a professor at Hofstra University. "Color and ancestry were less important than the sense of community that developed in the city. There was real diversity in those days. Here we can see African-American history in a place where it emerged but was not the sole element of identity."
His source material came from a vacant lot next to St. Augustine’s Church (1210 Governor Nicholls Street). Under the lot lay the foundations and detritus of a plantation house built in the 1700s and torn down in the 1920s.
The key word and source of controversy in New Orleans is "Creole," said Mathews. Historically, the term meant descendants of the original French or Spanish settlers in Louisiana. But depending on whom you ask now, it can also mean people with French last names and some African ancestry, or a style in food or music that draws on that heritage.
New Orleans’ racial history is the key to its present. The French first brought enslaved Africans to the colony in 1719. Although formal prohibitions limiting civil rights were on the lawbooks, rules were often bent in light of the need for black soldiers and the scarcity of European women in the colony. Often these white Creoles kept black mistresses but acknowledged their children and willed them property, said Mathews. Nominally, only the government could free slaves. But a de facto policy arose of freeing the children of the unions of Frenchmen and slave women.
Blacks were also prominent in certain skilled trades. They labored as brick masons, ironworkers, stone cutters, carpenters, and seamstresses. These workers, as well as the ex-soldiers, were sometimes freed as rewards for their talents.
When the Spanish arrived in 1763, they enacted laws to make freeing slaves simpler for owners and introduced a system by which slaves could purchase their freedom. By the end of the 18th century, these freed blacks plus additional refugees from the Caribbean gave New Orleans the largest population of free people of color in the United States. Many of these people owned property, giving the black population a solid, if modest, economic base.
But blacks weren’t the only nonwhite group in 18th century New Orleans. Ten percent of the artifacts found in Mathews’s dig were Native American ceramics, indicating that the city dwellers either included or had trade relations with the surrounding Indian populations. These broken shards of pottery are tangible evidence of social relations, of an alliance between the French and the Indians that gave the latter access to the world trading system connected with the city’s port.
With the Louisiana Purchase by the United States in 1803, English-speaking, Protestant Americans poured into the city. Blacks and whites remained in the same places like the Tremé district, while the new "Americans" built mansions uptown. If anything, said Mathews, French-speaking blacks and whites sought communion in a common language, in opposition to Protestant newcomers. Catholics viewed the latter as interested only in making money, not in living well. Laws governing African Americans grew more restrictive until in the decade prior to the Civil War, slaves could not be freed at all.
During the 19th century, the mixed-race population grew steadily. The Tremé neighborhood produced historically prominent citizens like jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet and Homer Plessy, the central figure in the court case (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1895) that established the Jim Crow tenet of "separate but equal."
Race relations in New Orleans today, said Mathews, are more like those in the rest of the country, although much of its social, culinary, and musical traditions owe their roots to nearly three centuries of its own special heritage. Monuments remain to the city’s idiosyncratic racial past and to the African Americans who have been a part of the city’s history from the beginning.
The Presbytere in Jackson Square, near the Saint Louis Cathedral, is one of seven components of the Louisiana State Museums (751 Chartres Street). Within the Presbytere, the Jazz Museum traces the development of New Orleans music since 1700 and contains the instruments of many black musicians, including Louis Armstrong’s first trumpet. The same site displays the largest single collection relating to the Louisiana Mardi Gras.
The Amistad Research Center, in Tilton Hall on the Tulane University campus (6823 St. Charles Avenue), houses more than 10 million documents relating to African-American history and exhibits of African and African-American art.
The Hermann-Grima Historic House (820 Saint Louis Street) is a restored 1821 Creole mansion with well-documented stories of both slave owners and slaves. Tours include Creole cooking demonstrations.
African religious rituals persisted in New Orleans, and voodoo worshippers would meet deep in the nearby swamps. The most famous practitioner was Marie Laveau. Visitors still leave flowers and other offerings on her grave in the Saint Louis Cemetery Number 2 (N. Claiborne Avenue and Bienville Street). The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum (724 Dumaine Street) houses an exhibit of African masks, ritual musical instruments, and voodoo dolls. Voodoo tours are available, too.
Worth a visit, too, but for different reasons is Xavier University, which points out that it is the nation’s only university that is both historically black and Catholic. Xavier boasts of its top ranking in the number of African-American students earning undergraduate degrees in biology, physics, and the physical sciences. It has graduated 25 percent of the African-American pharmacists in the nation since 1927, and it is first in the nation in placing African-American graduates in medical schools.
Ed Foulks, M.D., chair of the APA Task Force on Local Arrangements suggests Snug Harbor in the Faubourg Marigny, an old-fashioned jazz club that isn’t modern or commercial and that serves up authentic local music.
Chef Leah Chase presides over Dookie Chase’s Restaurant (2301 Orleans Avenue), where she started working for her mother-in-law in 1946. She offers familiar Creole dishes—gumbo and jambalaya—but with "a lot of African influence," she said. This "Creole de couleur" includes less of the French influence and lots of fresh thyme, garlic, and onions. She suggests the eggplant with crabs and shrimp.
The Praline Connection has two locations. The candy store (yes, it makes pralines) and restaurant at 907 South Peters Street is open for lunch Monday through Friday and for two seatings (11 a.m. and 2 p.m.) of the Sunday Gospel Brunch, featuring live gospel music (reservations required,  523-3973). The second location serves dinner as well (542 Frenchman Street;  943-3943). ▪