Rare 1812 New Orleans City Ordinance Banning Slave Gatherings
Sold for $3,250
dated November 2, 1812, manuscript in French text on Super Royal sheet, prohibiting the "sports and dances of the slaves of the city, the suburbs & circumjacent places, which have hitherto been tolerated by virtue of the Ordinances of Police . . . are expressly prohibited for the time to come ; ; all slaves found gathered together, either on a Sunday, or on any other day of the week, for the purpose of the aforesaid sports and dances, or for any other purpose whatsoever, except the case of funeral processions, shall be apprehended by the commissaries of police . . . and shall be committed to jail" [translation from the English version of the ordinance as published in the Louisiana State Gazette November 12, 1812], signed by mayor Nicholas Girod (1751-1840) and recorder Pierre Francois Missonnet (ca. 1750-1833), matted, glazed and presented in a narrow giltwood frame.
sheet 27.5 cm x 20.5 cm (10-1/2" x 8"); framed 17-1/4" x 14"
Notes: This document ordains the repeal of the Sunday slave gatherings - a long-respected law and tradition in New Orleans - held at historic Congo Square from 1812 until they were reinstated in 1817. The history of these gatherings dates to Louisiana's 18th-century colonial period, and article five of the French Code Noir, which exempted slaves from forced labor on Sundays and religious holidays.
"On those Free days, which shortly came to include Saturday afternoons as well, slaves began to hire themselves out for wages or take their surplus products - not only foodstuffs and cash crops they had grown on their plots, but also gleanings of nuts and berries from the woods as well as fish and game from the swamps - into the town and sell them, much as local Indians had been doing since the city was founded in 1718. And with their proceeds they could buy many of their own necessities, including articles of clothing." (Jerah Johnson, "New Orleans's Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early Afro-American Culture Formation", Louisiana History: Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 32, no. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 122.
This market, known in the 18th century as the Place des Negres (though a significant Native American presence was also at the market), was situated at the end of Orleans Street at the limit of the city (corresponding now to Rampart Street) at the projecting barricade known as the Orleans Bastion. It remained there in 1792 when Governor Carondelet reinforced the city's barricade and erected Fort Ferdinand at the old Orleans Bastion, moving only slightly into the foot of the fort's gorge. It expanded from marketplace to gathering place for enslaved persons to socialize and engage in dances and games of their heritage, primarily Congolese, hence its later name.
In the first years of the 19th century, Spain retroceded the colony to France (both countries lax in formalizing the transfer), which was finally sold to the United States in 1803. Now under the control of the United States, the old French Code Noir was no longer in force, but the tradition of these Sunday gatherings was codified by city ordinance. It is generally reported that it was the New Orleans Conseil de Ville ordinance of October 15, 1817 that established the Sunday gatherings, but it was actually an ordinance five years earlier, on February 15, 1812, article 7, with identical wording to the 1817 ordinance (in which it is article 6): "The meeting of slaves for the purpose of dancing or amusing themselves in any other manner may take place on Sundays only until sundown, and only in the places which shall be designated by the Mayor" and proscribing ten to twenty-five lashes for violation of the ordinance.
The ordinance of the present lot very specifically repealing article 7 of the 1812 ordinance does not appear in the records of Conseil de Ville, nor does any likely motivation for it. It was likely a confluence of events, among them the beginning of the War of 1812 (an assault on New Orleans was proposed by Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren as early as November 1812), fear of slave alliance with Native Americans (some of whom months earlier had conducted a siege at Fort Wayne and assisted the British in the victory at Queenston Heights), and a more pragmatic consideration of the impending demolition of Fort Ferdinand (bids for which appear in the Louisiana Gazette alongside the publication of this repeal ordinance).
The ordinance ordained that it be "published by bear of drum and inserted in the usual newspapers, that all persons may have due notice thereof", so it is possible that the current document was a contemporaneous copy for public notice, but as there is no extant copy in the archives of the Conseil de Ville, it may also be the original which has somehow survived.