History of Racial Justice & Decolonization in New Orleans

When the ACPA23 began to explore connections between New Orleans, racial justice, and decolonization, we located – as you might imagine – an overwhelming amount of content. What you will encounter below is just the beginning of what one might learn of this region’s history. We carefully explored topics such as when and how the land was colonized; colonializers’ relationship with Indigenous communities; and how issues of race played out through the slave trade and into modern times.

What you will not locate is the pre-contact history of the land. Much of Indigenous Knowledge and history is retained and passed down through oral tradition. We are fortunate to have the support of our Elder in Residence, Louise Billiot, and the Principal Chief of United Houma Nation, Lora Chaisson, in receiving this history to pass on to you. Our hope is to have their wisdom compiled into a format for sharing in this space sometime in early January.

Early Colonialism and the Seeds of War

1699 BCE (before common era) is commonly recorded as the first European  encounter between colonists and Indigenous Peoples of Louisiana. Early recordings document forged alliances between Indigenous Peoples and colonialists to form social alliances towards acquiring resources; strategy used by both Indigenous Peoples and colonialists to move forward in their own political and economic agendas. As time passed, the European settler population increased to accumulate resources and water access. The frequent raids of Indigenous lands by French and English imperialists and their allies resulted in the enslavement of thousands of Southeastern Native peoples. Twelve years of war between French colonists and the Chitimacha Indians followed. From Balbancha thousands of enslaved Indigenous People were shipped across the French Caribbean and English North America. The Houma and Natchitoches Indians withdrew into the bayous on the outskirts of the river delta.

In 1715, the location of New Orleans was identified by the French with the help of Indigenous wisdom.

Building New Orleans 

As New Orleans was engineered, its designers opted to mimic European cities, projecting an image as a place of refuge from continued war with the Natchez and Chickasaw Indians. Enslaved Africans imported through Saint-Domingue (Haiti) began to constitute the bulk of laborers. The French colonialists eventually accepted that it was impossible to live in the region while at war with the Southeastern Native Tribes/Indigenous Peoples, and shifted their relationship toward one of intrigue, dependence, and the occasional friendship over conflict. 

When conflict subsided, Indigenous Peoples began to fold the emerging city into their networks of commerce. More familiar with the ebb and flow of nature in this flood-prone area, Southeastern tribes demonstrated techniques to layer and shape the land through ritual and artistic expression creating mounds as a result. These mounds were how cities had been built in Balbancha before the arrival of the Europeans. Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge of how to steward land and transport its resources supported the integration of New Orleans within tribal networks of trade and culture.

Plantation System and the Arrival of a Racial Binary

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase ceded a significant swath of formerly French colonial land to the United States, under the condition that Indigenous rights as established with Paris be upheld. Because the fledgling nation did not have treaties with all the Indigenous Peoples of New Orleans, the Houma, Chitimacha, and Tunica Indians were pushed further to the outskirts of the city. The arrival of Americans would further alter relationships between Indigenous Peoples, enslaved Africans, and other racial and ethnic groups that had begun under French and Spanish rule.

In the early days of Louisiana’s colonization, children of mixed race were common. People of Creole descent – those of mixed African, Indigenous, and/or European origin – were considered a racial/ethnic category unto themselves. When Spain ruled the region, it permitted the enslavement of Creole people of color, and mandated that they be given the opportunity to earn their freedom. Indigenous Peoples, meanwhile, were protected from enslavement. For Creoles of color who were free, they occupied a social status below white Creoles and white colonists. When the United States took over Louisiana, plantation culture and the duality of race (with folks of color uniformly being subjugated), constituted a culture shock and increasingly confounding dynamics of power and privilege across layers of racial freedom.

Post-War Identity and Politics

Following the Civil War, Creoles of color and formerly enslaved peoples of African descent would attempt the process of desegregating the City of New Orleans. Politically, the United States was opposed to integration – it was not a part of the plan for Reconstruction. In Louisiana, late 19th-century social movements designed to unite white communities in support of an integrated culture failed. Concurrently, attempts at recodifying predominantly white Creoles as white failed in the Louisiana state legislature. Louisiana’s dueling cultural attributes of racial progression versus conservatism created an unclear picture of the future of racial equity in the state. With Black people wanting to live separately from whites to avoid a marginalized co-existence, people of Creole descent opted to center their more privileged status and separated themselves from the Black community.

Modern Histories

Over the course of the 20th Century, political and economic ambitions of white politicians would serve to further segregate New Orleans. Complex legal proceedings stripped Indigenous lands of their recognition under municipal law in favor of the expansion of the city. Segregation policies drawn from Jim Crow era practices manifested in Black and Indigenous communities with less infrastructure and municipal resources. The most glaring example of segregation’s impact on communities of color in the region was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as the world witnessed the ways in which Black and Brown communities were unable to evacuate and were the slowest to be rebuilt after the catastrophic Category 5 hurricane.

Works consulted:

Barthé, D. (2021). Becoming American in Creole New Orleans, 1896-1949. Louisiana State University Press.

d’Oney, J.D. (2020). A kingdom of water: Adaption and survival of the Houma Nation. University of Nebraska Press.

Regis, H. A. (2019). Local, Native, Creole, Black: Claiming belonging, producing autochthony. In T. J. Adams & M. Sakakeeny, (Eds.), Remaking New Orleans: Beyond exceptionalism and authenticity (pp. 138-161). Duke University Press. 

Usher, D. (2022). Communicating sovereignty in Balbancha: The performance of Native American diplomacy in early New Orleans. In K. Blansett, (Ed.), Indian cities: histories of indigenous urbanization (pp. 46-71). University of Oklahoma Press.

Vidal, C. (2019). Caribbean New Orleans:  Empire, race, and the making of a slave society. University of North Carolina Press.