by Greg A. Beaman/Director of Research, The Claiborne Avenue History Project Greg@ClaiborneAvenue.org
The Claiborne Avenue History Project (CAHP) is a multi-platform documentary project that collects and curates history about North Claiborne Avenue focusing on civil rights, culture, and commerce from the Avenue’s heyday in the early 20th century, through its demise with the 1966-69 construction of the I-10 highway, and into North Claiborne today. This project places North Claiborne Avenue within its historical context as a commercial and cultural center for the African American community. As we unveil the iconic history of N. Claiborne Avenue we will share selected short narratives with the public thanks to The New Orleans Tribune.
“The Death of American Slavery: A Claiborne Avenue Funeral for ‘The Monster’ at the end of the Civil War”
The I-10 bridge over Claiborne Avenue is often referred to as ‘The Monster’, evoking an oppressive concrete presence looming over a once-verdant community gathering place. More than a century before the construction of the I-10, though, the denizens of Claiborne Avenue hosted a funeral for another ‘monster’ that oppressed people of color in the city. On February 19 and 20, 1865, the New Orleans community of color staged a funeral to observe and celebrate “The Death of American Slavery” (Mort de l’esclavage Americain). When word reached New Orleans on February 11, 1865, that Congress had passed the 13th Amendment and sent the question of abolishing slavery to the states for ratification, people of color went to work planning a fitting way to bury the cruelties and indignities they had spent their lives enduring.
French-language advertisements placed in the pages of the historic New Orleans Tribune in the first weeks of February 1865 promoted the funeral. The funeral took place over two days at Holy Name of Jesus Church, located on the corner of Claiborne and Ursulines. On Sunday, February 19, 1865,a priest offered a Te Deum to give thanks. The next morning, 10 o’clock on Monday, a priest gave another “mass of solemn Jubilation” (messe solonnelle de Jubilation). After the Monday morning mass, the congregants buried the lifeless body of “the infamy” (l’infame) of slavery. The advertisement invited “all who have suffered under the monster…to come throw some dirt upon the cadaver” (tous ceux qui ont en a souffrir de ce monstre, sont invites a venir jeter une terre sur son cadaver).
The timing of the funeral just over a week before Mardi Gras deserves notice. Though the United States Congress certainly took no notice of the Carnival season when it passed the amendment, New Orleanians would have known that Mardi Gras was coming on February 28. The proximity of the funeral for American slavery and that year’s Mardi Gras suggests that the event belongs to the Claiborne Avenue Carnival tradition, as well.
The Tribune advertisement shows that slavery oppressed not just the enslaved but also their kin and families who had become free. Prior to emancipation, the gens de couleur libre used the slave system as a strategic means of maintaining kinship and family alliances by purchasing relatives and loved ones. After Union forces captured New Orleans in April 1862, alliances developed between the enslaved men, women, and children of the city and Union forces. The alliance attacked the power of those who claimed human property and began to chip away at the legal underpinnings of slavery. Enslaved men, women, and children self-emancipated themselves with courageous moves away from the homes of their purported owners to the ostensible safety of Union fortifications.
Historians have written about the large numbers of freed people who forged communities in Carrollton and especially in Camp Parapet in Jefferson Parish.
The funeral for slavery of 1865, however, suggests that the alliance between newly freed and historically free people of color coalesced on and around Claiborne Avenue. The large community of free people of color in Tremé continued the alliance and demonstrated its strength through public display.
Even though the ratification process for the 13th Amendment played out throughout 1865, the formerly enslaved men, women, and children of New Orleans, the community of gens de couleur, and “all who suffered under the monster” seized the opportunity to publicly declare themselves free.
The Heart of It All
Claiborne Avenue has been at the heart of the New Orleans African American cultural, commercial and political experience for over 200 years. And its communities’ stories are emblematic of the ultimate American experiences: the broad themes of construction and expansion, cultural and economic boom, obliteration and devastation, potential resurrection, and the opportunity for art and its enduring traditions to triumph in the face of adversity.
Veteran educator Raynard Sanders is the executive director of the Project. Katherine Cecil serves as director/producer and curator.
We are telling this story through the eyes of the residents and businesses along N. Claiborne and across the city of New Orleans. To find out more about the project please visit ClaiborneAvenue.org. We would love to hear your stories of N. Claiborne Avenue; you can participate by sharing your memories, old family photographs, or newspaper clippings by e-mailing us at info@ClaiborneAvenue.org or by posting via social media #TheCAHP. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @TheCAHP.