On St. John the Baptist’s Day, seven spirit-seekers and three mediums gathered around a table inside a 200-year-old haunted house in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Candles flickered on a wine-colored tablecloth. A cat mewed. Marie Laveau, the 19th-century voodoo queen reimagined as a doll, stood quietly in the corner, bearing witness to the seance-in-progress.
One by one, the guests reached out to their deceased loved ones. The mediums received visions of green olives (a message from a mother fond of them), embroidered cloth (from a great-grandmother of Latin-American descent) and a limping animal (a family’s golden retriever that had been hit by a car). When my turn arrived, I did not shake the family tree or poke empty dog beds. Instead, I attempted to rouse a figure who has been garnering a heap of attention this year in New Orleans.
“I would like to speak to Bienville,” I told the trio of women, uttering the surname of the French-Canadian who established the port city in 1718. “I want to know what he thinks of New Orleans now.”
The medium Juliet spoke from her position behind a black lacy curtain that partially obscured her face and body.
“I saw him shaking his head,” she said. “He is in shock and disbelief that, after 300 years, we are still here.”
Voodoo Queen Bloody Mary, who ran the seance, said that she had once tried to find Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in Paris’s Montmartre Cemetery, but failed to locate his remains. (She was looking in the wrong resting place.) On this occasion, Bienville materialized with little prodding. Lucy the dog took longer to show up.
So, why was Bienville so quick to return? Perhaps he was curious about all the fuss the city is making for the tricentennial, with special art exhibits, celebratory cocktails and festive signage on buses, lamp posts and lawns. Maybe he wants to don ropes of Mardi Gras beads and dance on 300 years of history, some of which he made.
If he does decide to join the party, he will find himself on a crowded stage. New Orleans has accumulated a lot of characters over three centuries, and not all require a medium to contact.
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Soft, soggy, swampy. The area’s boggy terrain was better suited for spotting gators than establishing an urban center. But that didn’t stop the French. The colonizers first started sniffing around the Louisiana coast in 1682, back when its primary inhabitants were Native Americans. Decades later, the French established La Nouvelle-Orléans on the eastern banks of the lower Mississippi River, a move that many consider a folly.
“It’s a very strategic site for a city,” said Richard Campanella, a geographer and professor at the Tulane School of Architecture. “It made sense at the time.”
I met Campanella in his office, where he rattled off a whiplash version of the city’s history. The French ran New Orleans till the 1760s, followed by the Spanish (1762-1800), then back to the French. In the early 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson expressed interest in purchasing New Orleans. Napoleon, distracted by a slave uprising in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and tensions with England, sold Louisiana for $15 million. In 1803, the countries signed the Louisiana Purchase, and the rest is U.S. history.
“This was the dawn of the American Era and the Antebellum Age,” Campanella said.
We hopped in his car for a tour. To get my bearings, he mapped out the city: South is toward the river; north is toward Lake Pontchartrain; east is downtown or downriver; and west is uptown or upriver. He told me that most locals provide directions based on bodies of water, not compass points, so I should learn my Pontchartrain and my Mississippi before setting out.
On the drive, he pointed out significant sights, with commentary: Magazine Street (“At five miles long, it’s one of the great American streets”), Bywater (“it is the Williamsburg of New Orleans”), City Park (“the fifth-largest in the country”), Old Ursuline Convent (“You could drop it into the outskirts of Paris and you wouldn’t even bat an eye”).
In Treme, we passed a church and his professorial tone turned giddy. “Oh look at that,” he exclaimed. “It’s a funeral. I wonder if there is going to be a jazz funeral afterward.”
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to idle by the steps. We were barely through our first century. Onward to the antebellum.
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Back at Tulane, I switched cars (minivan), guides (John McCusker) and focus (music). The New Orleans native runs several excursions, including the “Cradle of Jazz” and the “Katrina Eye Witness Tour.” (The former Times-Picayune photographer is the eyewitness in the title.) En route to Louis Armstrong Park, McCusker, a cool cat in a straw fedora, explained the history of jazz, a musical mutt of blues, ragtime, dirges and marches.
“It was a new tradition that grew out of other cultural traditions that intersected,” he said. In Congo Square, inside the park, McCusker tapped into jazz’s forebears, the slaves who gathered on Sundays to sing, dance and play their ancestral music from West Africa. A sculpture depicts the jubilant scene: The women, swathed in headscarves called tignons, moving their mouths and legs to the beat; the men pounding on drums and plucking on stringed gourds.
“The grandfathers of jazz hadn’t even been born yet,” he said.
Many of those grandfathers - Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong - lived in New Orleans, and McCusker deaccelerated by several sites where they once performed or resided.
“This is the only vacant lot on the tour,” he said, as we looked through the car window at the former home of Bechet, the legendary saxophonist and clarinetist.
To nudge our imaginations, McCusker turned up “Cake Walking Babies” on the car stereo.
“Okay, here is where the fireworks start,” he said. “That’s Sidney, that growl thing.”
We braved the heat to check out Storyville, the city’s red-light district from 1897 to 1917, and the black vice district, which was active from the 1880s to the 1950s. The latter is home to a quartet of buildings whose shabby states belie their earlier vitality. (Preservationists are doing their darndest to protect the structures, which include the Eagle Saloon, where Buddy Bolden performed, and the Karnofsky Tailor Shop, whose Jewish owners provided Armstrong with a second home.) We stood outside the boarded-up Iroquois Theater, a movie palace and jazz concert hall that catered to African Americans.
“This was the first stage Louis performed on,” he said.
For his debut gig, the 11-year-old trumpeter powdered his face in flour and competed in a talent show. The boy wonder won.
Back in the car, McCusker slowly passed by the former residence of trombonist “Kid” Ory. “This was a crack house,” he said of the home’s 1990s period, which preceded its 2002 renovation.
In Central City, all the stars collided.
“This is the neighborhood where jazz was born. Not Treme. Not the French Quarter,” he said. “This has the highest concentration of jazz pioneers who would go on to take the music to the rest of the world.” Seven names rolled off his tongue.
To honor the moment, McCusker pressed play on “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” and let Louis take us home.
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Her name was Mary Harris and though she was 86 years old, her memories were vivid. She clearly remembered her childhood - how she used to haul in the kindling and light the fire and hold the fan that shooed the flies away from her masters’ food.
“It wasn’t hard work,” she recalled, “but my arms used to get tired ‘specially at dinner when they set so long at the table.”
Mary, long gone, accompanied me on the guided tour of the Whitney Plantation, about 45 miles west of New Orleans. I wore her story around my neck, on a card dangling from a braided lanyard.
Several plantations along the river invite visitors inside the opulent Fabergé eggs the wealthy planters called home. And in New Orleans, Le Musée de F.P.C. shares the accomplishments, and hardships, of free people of color, many of whom prospered in the port city known for its thriving slave market. The Whitney museum covers similar themes but turns the lens on the slaves and relegates the owners, the Haydels, to the sidelines.
“We’re one of the few plantations telling the story of slavery, of how it was,” said Matthew Ward, a guide and PhD student in history at Louisiana State University.
From from 1752 to 1865, the plantation possessed more than 350 slaves, who toiled in its indigo, rice and sugar-cane fields or in the Big House as domestics. Mary was not one of the Whitney’s slaves - her oral history was collected through Federal Writers’ Project interviews of individuals who had spent their childhoods enslaved - but I could safely assume the plantation had several of its own Marys.
After handing out umbrellas as sun protection, Matthew led us inside the Antioch Baptist Church, where we were not alone. Dozens of statues depicting children born into slavery sat on pews and stood in loose clusters around the altar and in the aisles. Their sculpted faces were full of expression; some looked defiant, others withdrawn.
Outside, the Wall of Honor, one of three memorials on the property, was a silent roll call of the Whitney’s slaves. The first granite slab was empty, a tribute to the men and women who did not appear on the ship manifests but deserve recognition. The other panels were covered with first names, countries of origin, dates of birth and skills. I started reading from the top:
“Achille, Mandingo Nation, Carter, Ploughman, Domestic, Born ca. 1797;”
“Alexandre, Bambara Nation, Carpenter, Barrel Maker, Domestic, Born ca. 1789;”
“Francois, Grif (Black and Native American), Born ca. 1769.”
And on and on it went.
I caught up with Matthew as he was explaining how, after the United States abolished the international slave trade, slave owners relied on breeding to fill their ranks. As an example, he mentioned Julia Woodrich’s mother, who gave birth to 15 children. Physical condition determined price, he said. A 16-year-old Creole named Suzette was sold for $1,125; a man with a hernia was worth $200.
“The bodies were only as valuable as the labor they could produce,” he said.
At a large iron bell, Matthew encouraged us to yank the thick rope “in honor of all of the enslaved people who lived and died on the plantation.”
There were 15 people in my group, and the bell tolled 15 times.
“The story about slavery does not end. It goes on in other ways and in other names,” he said. “It’s part of the American story.”
And so is Mary and her young, exhausted limbs.
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To get a jump-start on the next centennial, I squeezed up as close to the Mississippi as possible without falling in.
“The riverfront is the 21st century,” said Sean Cummings, a New Orleans real estate developer I had met last summer in Bywater, a neighborhood benefiting from his attentions.
I could tick off several of his projects from Crescent Park, the one-mile-long green space that opened in 2014 and goes with the flow of the Mississippi. I followed the path from Bywater, through the Marigny riverfront and to the lower edge of the French Quarter - specifically, the takeout window at Cafe du Monde.
To reach my chicory coffee, I had to climb up and over the railroad tracks on the Piety Street Bridge, the rainbow-arched overpass created by David Adjaye, lead designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. I had to swing on the swings at Mandeville Wharf. And I had to resist the temptation - twice - to jump the fence and stick my toes in the sandy beach.
From the French Quarter, I circumvented Governor Nicholls Street Wharf terminal and jumped back on the riverside trail to Woldenberg Riverfront Park. Here, my allegiance to the tricentennial was rewarded with a giant NOLA 300 sign. I celebrated by diving barefeet-first into a 90-foot-long string of water spouts.
For longer distances, I rented a Blue Bike, the city’s new bike-sharing program. In the cooling night air, I pedaled to Bayou St. John, where voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman was leading a St. John’s Eve head-washing ceremony. I returned, head dry, on the Lafitte Greenway and passed the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the burial place of Laveau and possibly Nicolas Cage, who commissioned a pyramid mausoleum suitable for the Conehead clan.
On a Sunday afternoon, I cycled to a Second Line parade in Uptown. I found the start of the procession but no docking station. I had breached the boundaries and, to avoid a penalty, had to retreat several blocks.
I caught up with the procession midstream, and the brass band and jubilant revelers pulled me into the current.
For blocks, we commanded the streets, forcing cars to wait or detour. I walked between two men pulling a cooler filled with beer and a guy singing on a loop: “skip, hop, skippity, hop, hop.”
I looked up and spotted three wiry kids with rubbery limbs dancing on a construction site. They reappeared on the rooftop of a fast-food restaurant. As we neared a cemetery, I watched them scramble onto the gravestones and let loose. I couldn’t see him, but I sensed that Bienville was grooving right alongside them.
If you go
Where to stay
The Old No. 77 Hotel and Chandlery
535 Tchoupitoulas St.
The downtown hotel, which occupies a former 19th-century warehouse, creates a cozy nest out of brick walks, hardwood floors and contemporary artwork. Skip housekeeping and earn a credit for the well-curated minibar. The ground-level restaurant, Compère Lapin, is run by “Top Chef” alum Nina Compton, who mixes Gulf ingredients with Caribbean, French and Italian influences. Through Sept. 30, save 25 percent with the NOLA300 deal. Rates from $80.
What to do
5099 Hwy. 18, Wallace, Louisiana
Guests must take a guided tour to visit the planation grounds and buildings, including the slave cabins, the Big House and the Children of Whitney sculptures. Tour times sell out, so purchase tickets at least a day in advance. Closed Tuesdays. Tours are hourly, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Admission costs $22.
Cradle of Jazz Tour
John McCusker explores the city’s rich musical history and its legendary performers, such as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Along the way, he plays a soundtrack that will transport you back in time. The former photojournalist also offers a Hurricane Katrina tour. Tickets cost $50.
Voodoo Queen Bloody Mary’s Haunted Museum
828 N. Rampart St.
Attend a Victorian-style seance ($66; held Sundays at 6 p.m.) or sign up for any number of spine-tingling tours and ghost hunts, such as the Haunted Mansion ($10), site of a real murder. You can also make your own Voodoo doll in the Le Spirits shop ($27).