Department Chair Dr. Joshua Rothman was recently involved in a project in New Orleans, where several markers were erected to mark places in the city where enslaved people were bought and sold.
A few years ago, Rothman co-wrote an op-ed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune discussing “the absence of recognition of the city’s role in the slave trade, and suggesting that that ought to change.” The essay reached the Mayor’s office, and the city decided to create a series of historical markers for New Orleans’ tricentennial. Rothman served on the subcommittee responsible for the markers, which drafted six markers for locations around the city.
Though New Orleans played a major role in both the transatlantic and domestic slave trade. Dr. Rothman’s research focuses on the domestic slave trade, and Rothman says that “New Orleans was the single largest center of that trade in the entire country. Somewhere around 135,000 enslaved people were bought and sold in the city between the early nineteenth century and the end of the Civil War.” However, the city has often neglected this part of its history. “Until a few years ago, pretty much the only formal acknowledgement of the city’s role in the slave trade was a plaque on the side of a building in the French Quarter that marked the site of a building where enslaved people were sold at auction,” says Rothman. “And the plaque isn’t even accurate–the actual site of that building is across the street!”
Though it is a multifaceted issue, Rothman says that this neglect stems in part from “the power of conservative white southerners to convey a historical narrative that downplayed slavery and the experiences of black people almost entirely,” and notes that it has only been recently that most places around the country have acknowledged their role in the slave trade. He also thinks, though, that it may have something to do with the city’s dependence on party tourism. This facet of history is a poor fit for the city’s image, especially among tourists — “It’s hard to Laissez les bons temps rouler when you’re confronted with the history of slave trade, after all,” says Rothman.
Rothman believes strongly that the history of slavery in the United States continues to shape the nation, which makes it an important area of study. Having studied American slavery for over twenty years, he continues to do so “because I think the institution of racial slavery imprinted the economy, culture, and politics of the United States in fundamental ways from its origins. And its legacy still does. Even though the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of enslaved people is the most revolutionary moment in American history, we have never genuinely reckoned with slavery’s significance.”
Rothman and his associates’ efforts to shine light on this part of the city’s history have been successful. Installation of the six historical markers around the French Quarter began this summer, and “it’s been hugely rewarding,” Rothman says. “The interest people have in history transcends the classroom, and they encounter it everywhere in their daily lives.” Rothman encourages others to pursue opportunities to bring their research into the public eye. “To my way of thinking, every area of research is an area where public history can and should play a role.”
The Department is incredibly proud of the work that our Department Chair continues to do — congratulations, Dr. Rothman!
For more information on the markers and their installation, see the New Orleans Advocate.