The Birthplace of Louisiana Afro-Creole Culture?
If Afro-Creole culture in Louisiana has a birthplace, Faubourg Tremé would be the place. This place was not always the home to Creoles of Color though. Before it was a neighborhood, it was a French colonial brickyard at the hands of Chevalier Charles de Morand. Morand had a plantation in this area that was given to real estate developer and hat maker Claude Tremé in 1783. Tremé did not want a plantation so he divided up the lots and sold most of it away to wealthy planters and other investors. A Spanish Royal Decree in 1789 ordered the building of a Catholic cemetery that is known today as St. Louis Cemetery #1- the oldest cemetery in New Orleans today.
The City of New Orleans purchased the remaining land in 1810 and sold it to incoming Haitian refugees and other residents. The newly found neighborhood became a gathering place of entertainment for white and black creoles alike. Some of this entertainment includes Congo Square. The Square was a public entertainment area where slaves danced and played music for money. This generational practice among slaves is said to give birth to Jazz music in the late 19th century. The mixture of free people of color, slaves, and white europeans in Tremé was crucial to the development of Creole Caste Society in New Orleans.
The Blineau Experiment
Faubourg Tremé is also home to one of the nation’s first soap manufacturing companies in the United States. Olivier Blineau opened up a soap manufacturing shop in Tremé, but his success was short-lived. Soap making was a messy process during this time and Blineau was the target of many complaints to the City. The nearby neighbors could not resist the foul odors of the factory so Blineau shut down the factory and sold the land back to the City for $15,000 in 1831.
The Legacy of Orleans Parish Prison
The City of New Orleans contracted James Lambert, builder of the Beauregard-Keys House on Chartres St., to build the Orleans Parish Prison. It was completed in 1834 with a 300 cells, two Spanish bell towers, and stood 3 stories high. The City would fit as much as 400 prisoners at a time and was criticized harshly for inmate conditions. The average prisoner did not have a bed and slept on damped floors. This was also the place where they ate as well. White prisoners could pay 50 cents a day for an upgraded room, but the same was not afforded to black prisoners. They had a courtyard where public hangings would take place until the practice was banned in 1858.
The Orleans Parish Prison was home to some of the worst horror stories in New Orleans. One of the more infamous stories is of a woman who hung herself in a cell. Future inmates staying in that cell reported ghost stories of the woman who died there. They reported shrieking sounds and the ghost revealing her gruesome face to inmates. After several reports of similar incidents, authorities locked up the cell forever. It also served as a Confederate POW camp when New Orleans fell to Union forces in 1862. It’s also the setting where an angry mob stormed the prison to hang 11 Italian-Americans who were on trial for the murder of the New Orleans Police Chief. The Prison closed down in 1895 where the Orleans Drainage and Sewage Company built a pumping station in its place.
Creoles of Color in Fellowship
The St. Augustine Catholic Church in Tremé opened up in 1842 by free people of color. The Church welcomed free blacks and slaves as well as whites in Catholic fellowship. The property the Church was built on was donated by the Ursuline sisters. Henriette Delille, a free woman of color and nun, worked for the St. Augustine Church helping orphan girls, the uneducated, the poor, sick, and elderly in the black community. This was the most integrated Church in the nation at the time where free people of color, slaves, and white residents all attended the Church. The St. Augustine Church is the spiritual warehouse of Faubourg Tremé.
The Birth of Jazz
The Tremé neighborhood gave rise to Jazz music in the late 19th century. As Jim Crow swept through New Orleans, segregation among the races was never so tense as it was now. This was a counterculture of free expression, civil rights, and fellowship among the black community. It changed music forever and challenged societal norms of the time. Some famous jazz musicians from Tremé include Lionel Batiste, Trombone Shorty, and Jesse Hill. Congo Square now exists in Louis Armstrong Park- dedicated to the most famous jazz musician of New Orleans.
The story of Creole culture in New Orleans is not sensible nor complete without the story of Faubourg Tremé. The preservation of Tremé and its historic ways is vital to the preservation of not only New Orleans, but Creole culture itself. Its story needs to be told more so that we can save it from crime, poverty, and decay.