Mississippi Digital News

"Slavery in the Suburbs: Enslaved Lives & Urban Development in New Orleans, 1788-1852," Greg Beaman


On November 18, 1806, surveyor Barthelemy Lafon entered into an agreement with the real estate developer Bernard Marigny. Marigny tasked Lafon with transforming the fields and gardens of a plantation into a faubourg, a livable neighborhood with streets, squares, sidewalks, and fences. Lafon asked for $700 and “all the négres which will be necessary for him to help in the above-mentioned operations.” The City Surveyor Jacques Tanesse profited not only from his office but from the labor of William, who he hired out to the city under his own supervision. The enslaved men Mingo, Nicholas, and Michal earned $35 per month to carry the chains and equipment for Second Municipality Surveyor George T. Dunbar during the 1840s.

Surveyors and builders in nineteenth-century New Orleans could not have built the city without enslaved labor. Neither did the faubourgs of New Orleans transform from fields of indigo and sugarcane into residential neighborhoods. Swollen with tens of thousands of new residents, New Orleans during the nineteenth century grew from a loose collection of plantations surrounding a colonial village into an American city par excellence. The forced labor of enslaved men and women brought the urban visions of wealthy enslavers to fruition. Architectural historians and historians of urban development have traced the sales of real estate and analyzed architectural styles that predominated in the new faubourg. My research restores the identity of the enslaved men and women whose labor built New Orleans and shows that public officials and private individuals profited doubly through investments in real estate and human property. Urban development required both skilled and routine labor. While most enslaved men and women who labored at the behest of the numerous surveyors and builders in New Orleans suffered years of physical and mental degradation, some used their labor in the building trades to purchase freedom for themselves and their families.

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Greg Beaman, a visiting scholar at the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, researches the history of slavery in the Atlantic World with a specific focus on urban slavery, real estate, and the built environment in New Orleans during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 2010, he started Our House Stories, a historical research firm with a mission to tell the stories of ordinary New Orleanians who built not just homes but lives, careers, and families in the Crescent City. Since 2014, Greg has been Director of Research for the Claiborne Avenue History Project, an oral history project that preserves the history of culture, commerce, and Carnival in Black New Orleans. Greg is currently ABD in the Department of History at Georgetown University.

The Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies presented and recorded this lecture at the University of New Orleans on May 5, 2022. If you would like a copy of Beaman’s PowerPoint presentation, please inquire via email at midlocenter@uno.edu.


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