The area now called New Orleans was first inhabited by the Chitimacha Tribe whose lands reached from modern day New Orleans, east through the Atchafalaya Basin and present day Lafayette, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. In the late 1600’s, European colonizers first made contact with the Chitimacha Tribe. After years of warfare, the tribe retreated west and south to population centers along Grand Lake and the Bayou Teche where the tribe remains today. By 1723, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville claimed present day New Orleans as the capital of the French Colony of Louisiana. Later that year, France ceded Louisiana to Spain where it remained a Spanish colony for the remainder of the 1700’s. After being retroceded back to France, the entire Louisiana colony was then sold to the United States as part of the $15 million Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
From 1721 through 1795, the French and Spanish brought several thousand enslaved Africans to Louisiana from West-Central Africa to work the rice and indigo plantations. After the U.S. purchase of the Louisiana Territory, the population of enslaved Black Americans multiplied significantly as sugar cane became the dominant cash crop. By 1860, the number of enslaved Africans numbered 331,726. Enslaved people were producing 450 million pounds of sugar per year, allowing for plantation owners to make millions in commerce and build the prosperous city we know today. As a metropolis of opulent townhouses and magnificent mansions, New Orleans was also home to the busiest marketplace of enslaved people in the nation between 1803 – 1861.
As a crossroad of indigenous people, enslaved people from Africa and the West Indies, and French, Spanish, and American colonizers, New Orleans has a complex and multicultural history. There is a distinct New Orleans culture that includes jazz, Creole and Cajun cuisine, gospel music, and a multitude of notable festivals, most importantly Mardi Gras. In addition, its diverse population (today comprised of 59.53% Black, 33.9% white, 2.91% Asian, .2% Native, and the remainder “other” or two or more races) has built the city into one of the most important ports in the United States.
Climate Change in New Orleans
New Orleans’ unique location and geography make it an excellent place to discuss the implications of climate change. In addition to being located along the Mississippi River, it is also on the Gulf of Mexico, and on average, the city’s elevation is mostly below sea level. Because of its low elevation, high land subsidence rates, and tendency for being hurricane-prone, New Orleans has already begun facing the consequences of climate change — rising temperatures, flooding, and sea-level rise are its new reality. As one of the most vulnerable cities to the climate crisis in the United States, New Orleans sets the perfect stage our program’s discussion.
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