La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) was founded May 7, 1718, by the French Mississippi Company, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, on land inhabited by the Chitimacha. It was named for Philippe d'Orléans, Duke of Orléans, who was Regent of France at the time. His title came from the French city of Orléans. The French colony was ceded to the Spanish Empire in the Treaty of Paris (1763). During the American Revolutionary War, New Orleans was an important port to smuggle aid to the rebels, transporting military equipment and supplies up the Mississippi River. Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez successfully launched the southern campaign against the British from the city in 1779. New Orleans remained under Spanish control until 1801, when it reverted to French control. Nearly all of the surviving 18th-century architecture of the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) dates from this Spanish period. (The most notable exception being the Old Ursuline Convent.) Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Thereafter, the city grew rapidly with influxes of Americans, French, Creoles, Irish, Germans and Africans. Major commodity crops of sugar and cotton were cultivated with slave labor on large plantations outside the city.
The Haitian Revolution ended in 1804 and established the second republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first led by blacks. It had occurred over several years in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Thousands of refugees from the revolution, both whites and free people of color (affranchis or gens de couleur libres), arrived in New Orleans, often bringing African slaves with them. While Governor Claiborne and other officials wanted to keep out more free black men, the French Creoles wanted to increase the French-speaking population. As more refugees were allowed in Louisiana, Haitian émigrés who had first gone to Cuba also arrived. Many of the white francophones had been deported by officials in Cuba in response to Bonapartist schemes in Spain.
Nearly 90 percent of the new immigrants settled in New Orleans. The 1809 migration brought 2,731 whites; 3,102 free persons of African descent; and 3,226 enslaved persons of African descent, doubling the city's French-speaking population. The city became 63 percent black in population, a greater proportion than Charleston, South Carolina's 53 percent.
During the last campaign of the War of 1812, the British sent a force of 11,000 soldiers in an attempt to capture New Orleans. Despite great challenges, the young Andrew Jackson successfully cobbled together a motley crew of local militia, free blacks, US Army regulars, Kentucky riflemen, and local privateers to decisively defeat the British troops, led by Sir Edward Pakenham, in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The armies were unaware that the Treaty of Ghent had already ended the war on December 24, 1814.
As a principal port, New Orleans played a major role during the antebellum era in the Atlantic slave trade. Its port also handled huge quantities of commodities for export from the interior and imported goods from other countries, which were warehoused and then transferred in New Orleans to smaller vessels and distributed the length and breadth of the vast Mississippi River watershed. The river in front of the city was filled with steamboats, flatboats, and sailing ships. Despite its dealings with the slave trade, New Orleans at the same time had the largest and most prosperous community of free persons of color in the nation, who were often educated and middle-class property owners.
Dwarfing in population the other cities in the antebellum South, New Orleans had the largest slave market in the domestic slave trade, which expanded after the United States' ending of the international trade in 1808. Two-thirds of the more than one million slaves brought to the Deep South arrived via the forced migration of the domestic slave trade. The money generated by sales of slaves in the Upper South has been estimated at fifteen percent of the value of the staple crop economy. The slaves represented half a billion dollars in property, and an ancillary economy grew up around the trade in slaves—for transportation, housing and clothing, fees, etc., estimated at 13.5 percent of the price per person. All of this amounted to tens of billions of dollars (2005 dollars, adjusted for inflation) during the antebellum period, with New Orleans as a prime beneficiary.
According to the historian Paul Lachance, "the addition of white immigrants to the white creole population enabled French-speakers to remain a majority of the white population until almost 1830. If a substantial proportion of free persons of color and slaves had not also spoken French, however, the Gallic community would have become a minority of the total population as early as 1820." Large numbers of German and Irish immigrants began arriving at this time. The population of the city doubled in the 1830s and by 1840, New Orleans had become the wealthiest and the third-most populous city in the nation. In the 1850s, white Francophones remained an intact and vibrant community; they maintained instruction in French in two of the city's four school districts.
As the Creole elite feared, during the war, their world changed. In 1862, after the occupation of the City by Northern forces following the Navy's subduing the river forts, under the infamous Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, a respected state lawyer of the Massachusetts militia, who were previously attacked in Baltimore changing trains the previous year so he occupied that City. Later he was nicknamed "Beast" Butler, because of a military order he issued after his troops had been assaulted and harassed in the streets by Southern women, warning that future occurrences would cause his men to treat such "ladies" as those "plying their avocation in the streets" implying that they would treat them in return like prostitutes, the story of which spread like wildfire across the South and the North. He also came to be called "Spoons" Butler because of the alleged looting that his troops did while occupying New Orleans. He also issued regulations which abolished French language instruction in schools, and statewide measures in 1864 and 1868 further cemented the policy. By the end of the 19th Century, French usage in the city had faded significantly. However, as late as 1902 "one-fourth of the population of the city spoke French in ordinary daily intercourse, while another two-fourths was able to understand the language perfectly," and as late as 1945, one still encountered elderly Creole women who spoke no English. The last major French language newspaper in New Orleans, L’Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orléans, ceased publication on December 27, 1923, after ninety-six years; according to some sources Le Courrier de la Nouvelle Orleans continued until 1955.
During the American Civil War, the Union under Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans early in 1862; so the city was spared the destruction suffered by many other cities of the American South. With the Union Army eventually extending its control north along the Mississippi River and along the coastal areas of the State, such that most of the southern portion of Louisiana was originally exempted from the liberating provisions of the "Emancipation Proclamation" of January 1863, by President Lincoln. Large numbers of rural ex-slaves and some freedman from the City were recruited in the state by Brig. Gen. Daniel Ullman, (1810-1892), of the 78th Regiment of New York State Volunteers Militia for the first regiments of Black troops in the War that were named the "Corps d'Afrique", supplemented in the last two years of the War by newly organized "United States Colored Troops"
During Reconstruction, New Orleans was within the "Fifth Military District" of the United States. After being refused to have its reorganized government and senators/representatives recognized by the Radical Republican-controlled Congress in 1865, under President Lincoln's more lenient Reconstruction policies, Louisiana was eventually readmitted to the Union in 1868, and its Constitution of 1868 granted universal manhood suffrage. Both blacks and whites were elected to local and state offices. In 1872, then-lieutenant governor who was a Republican Party (United States)|Republican]], P.B.S. Pinchback succeeded Henry Clay Warmouth as governor of Louisiana, becoming the first non-white governor of an American state, and the last African American to lead a State of the U.S.A. until Democratic Governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder's election in Virginia, 117 years later. In New Orleans, Reconstruction was marked by the "Mechanics Institute" race riot (1866). The city operated successfully an early racially integrated public school system. Damage to levees and cities along the Mississippi River adversely affected southern crops and trade for the port city for some time, as the government tried to restore infrastructure. The nationwide Financial recession and Panic of 1873 also slowed economic recovery.
Reconstruction ended in Louisiana in 1877. Since 1874, the "White League", an insurgent paramilitary group that supported the Democratic Party, had succeeded in disrupting and suppressing the black vote in several elections and running off Republican officeholders. With their help, the white Democrats, the so-called Redeemers, regained control of the state legislature. They imposed Jim Crow laws, imposing racial segregation and, with the new constitution and election laws at the end of the century, disfranchising freedmen. Unable to vote, African Americans could not serve on juries or in local office, and were closed out of politics for several generations in the state. Public schools were racially segregated and remained so until 1960.
New Orleans' large community of well-educated, often French-speaking free persons of color (gens de couleur libres), who had not been enslaved prior to the Civil War, sought to fight back against Jim Crow. As part of their campaign, they recruited one of their own, Homer Plessy, to test whether Louisiana's newly enacted Separate Car Act was constitutional. Plessy boarded a commuter train departing New Orleans for Covington, Louisiana, sat in the car reserved for whites only, and was arrested. The case resulting from this incident, Plessy v. Ferguson, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. The court, in finding that "separate but equal" accommodations were constitutional, effectively upheld Jim Crow measures. In practice, African American public schools and accommodations were generally underfunded. The ruling contributed to this period as the nadir of race relations reached during this period.
New Orleans reached its most consequential position as an economic and population center in relation to other American cities in the decades prior to 1860; as late as that year, it was the nation's fifth-largest city and by far the largest in the American South. Though New Orleans continued to grow in size, from the mid-19th century onward, first the emerging industrial and railroad hubs of the Midwest overtook the city in population, then the rapidly growing metropolises of the Pacific Coast in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century, then other Sun Belt cities in the South and West in the post–World War II period surpassed New Orleans in population. Construction of railways and highways decreased river traffic, diverting goods to other transportation corridors and markets. From the late 1800s, most 10-year censuses depicted New Orleans sliding down the list of largest American cities. Reminded every ten years of its declining relative importance, New Orleans would periodically mount attempts to regain its economic vigor and pre-eminence, with varying degrees of success. In 1950, the Census Bureau reported New Orleans' population as 68% white and 31.9% black.
By the mid-20th century, New Orleanians saw that their city was being surpassed as the leading urban area in the South. By 1950, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta exceeded New Orleans in size, and in 1960 Miami eclipsed New Orleans, even as the latter's population reached what would be its historic peak that year. Like most older American cities in the postwar period, highway construction and suburban development drew residents from the center city, though the New Orleans metropolitan area continued expanding in population – just never as rapidly as other major cities in the Sun Belt. While the port remained one of the largest in the nation, automation and containerization resulted in significant job losses. The city's relative fall in stature meant that its former role as banker to the South was inexorably supplanted by competing companies in larger peer cities. New Orleans' economy had always been more based on trade and financial services than on manufacturing, but the city's relatively small manufacturing sector also shrank in the post–World War II period. Despite some economic development successes under the administrations of DeLesseps "Chep" Morrison (1946–1961) and Vic Schiro (1961–1970), metropolitan New Orleans' growth rate consistently lagged behind more vigorous cities.
During the later years of Morrison's administration, and for the entirety of Schiro's, the city was at the center of the Civil Rights struggle. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in the city, lunch counter sit-ins were held in Canal Street stores, and a very prominent and violent series of confrontations occurred when the city attempted school desegregation, in 1960. That episode witnessed the first occasion of a black child attending an all-white elementary school in the South, when six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in the city's Ninth Ward. The Civil Rights Movement's success in gaining federal passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided enforcement of constitutional rights, including voting for blacks. Together, these resulted in the most far-reaching changes in New Orleans' 20th century history. Though legal and civil equality were re-established by the end of the 1960s, a large gap in income levels and educational attainment persisted between the city's White and African-American communities. As the middle class and wealthier members of both races left the center city, its population's income level dropped and it became proportionately more African American. From 1980, the African-American majority has elected officials from its own community. They have struggled to narrow the gap by creating conditions conducive to the economic uplift of the African-American community.
New Orleans became increasingly dependent on tourism as an economic mainstay, by the administrations of Sidney Barthelemy (1986–1994) and Marc Morial (1994–2002). Relatively low levels of educational attainment, high rates of household poverty and rising crime threatened the prosperity of the city in the later decades of the century. The negative effects of these socioeconomic conditions contrasted with the changes to the economy of the United States, which were based on a post-industrial, knowledge-based paradigm where brains were far more important to advancement than brawn.
New Orleans' government and business leaders believed they needed to drain outlying areas to provide for the city's expansion. The most ambitious development during this period was a drainage plan devised by engineer and inventor A. Baldwin Wood and designed to break the surrounding swamp's stranglehold on the city's geographic expansion. Until then, urban development in New Orleans was largely limited to higher ground along the natural river levees and bayous. Wood's pump system allowed the city to drain huge tracts of swamp and marshland and expand into low-lying areas. Over the 20th century, rapid subsidence, both natural and human-induced, left these newly populated areas several feet below sea level.
New Orleans was vulnerable to flooding even before the city's footprint departed from the natural high ground near the Mississippi River. In the late 20th century, however, scientists and New Orleans residents gradually became aware of the city's increased vulnerability. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy killed dozens of residents, although the majority of the city remained dry. The rain-induced flood of May 8, 1995 demonstrated the weakness of the pumping system. After that event, measures were undertaken to dramatically upgrade pumping capacity. By the 1980s and 1990s, scientists observed that extensive, rapid and ongoing erosion of the marshlands and swamp surrounding New Orleans, especially that related to the Mississippi River – Gulf Outlet Canal, had left the city more exposed to hurricane-induced catastrophic storm surges than it before in its history.
New Orleans was catastrophically affected by what the University of California Berkeley's Dr. Raymond B. Seed called "the worst engineering disaster in the world since Chernobyl," when the Federal levee system failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. By the time the hurricane approached the city at the end of August 2005, most residents had evacuated. As the hurricane passed through the Gulf Coast region, the city's federal flood protection system failed, resulting in the worst civil engineering disaster in American history. Floodwalls and levees constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers failed below design specifications and 80% of the city flooded. Tens of thousands of residents who had remained in the city were rescued or otherwise made their way to shelters of last resort at the Louisiana Superdome or the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. More than 1,500 people were recorded as having died in Louisiana, and others are still unaccounted for. Before Hurricane Katrina, the city called for the first mandatory evacuation in its history, to be followed by another mandatory evacuation three years later with Hurricane Gustav.
The city was declared off-limits to residents while efforts to clean up after Hurricane Katrina began. The approach of Hurricane Rita in September 2005 caused repopulation efforts to be postponed, and the Lower Ninth Ward was reflooded by Rita's storm surge.
The Census Bureau in July 2006 estimated the population of New Orleans to be 223,000; a subsequent study estimated that 32,000 additional residents had moved to the city as of March 2007, bringing the estimated population to 255,000, approximately 56% of the pre-Katrina population level. Another estimate, based on data on utility usage from July 2007, estimated the population to be approximately 274,000 or 60% of the pre-Katrina population. These estimates are somewhat smaller than a third estimate, based on mail delivery records, from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center in June 2007, which indicated that the city had regained approximately two-thirds of its pre-Katrina population. In 2008, the Census Bureau revised upward its population estimate for the city, to 336,644. Most recently, 2010 estimates show that neighborhoods that did not flood are near 100% of their pre-Katrina populations, and in some cases, exceed 100% of their pre-Katrina populations.
Several major tourist events and other forms of revenue for the city have returned. Large conventions are being held again, such as those held by the American Library Association and American College of Cardiology. College football events such as the Bayou Classic, New Orleans Bowl, and Sugar Bowl returned for the 2006–2007 season. The New Orleans Saints returned that season as well, following speculation of a move. The New Orleans Hornets (now named the Pelicans) returned to the city fully for the 2007–2008 season, having partially spent the 2006–2007 season in Oklahoma City. New Orleans successfully hosted the 2008 NBA All-Star Game and the 2008 BCS National Championship Game. The city hosted the first and second rounds of the 2007 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. New Orleans and Tulane University hosted the Final Four Championship in 2012. Additionally, the city hosted the Super Bowl XLVII on February 3, 2013 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Major annual events such as Mardi Gras and the Jazz & Heritage Festival were never displaced or cancelled. Also, an entirely new annual festival, "The Running of the Bulls New Orleans", was created in 2007.
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