In 1842, George Buckingham reported walking through the rotunda. The auctioneers, he said, were "endeavouring to drown every voice but his own. ... One was selling pictures and dwelling on their merits; another was disposing of some slaves. These consisted of an unhappy family who were all exposed to the hammer at the same time. Their good qualities were enumerated in English and in French, and their persons were carefully examined by intending purchasers, among whom they were ultimately disposed of, chiefly to Creole buyers; the husband at 750 dollars, the wife at 550, and the children at 220 each."
Slaves were sold on this spot at the old St. Louis hotel, which had also served as the state Capitol and the site of Carnival balls. The hotel was on St. Louis between Chartres and Royal streets. Damaged in a 1915 storm, it was demolished two years later.
Indeed, in her 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe imagined a New Orleans hotel rotunda as the place where Uncle Tom and his fellow slaves from the St. Clare plantation were sold.
In the antebellum years, Creole gentlemen drank in the hotel's bar and attended with their wives and daughters fabulous balls and concerts. One of the most spectacular events held in the hotel was in honor of the visiting Henry Clay. During the winter of 1842-43, the great statesman paid an official visit to New Orleans, and a dinner and ball was held. Six hundred people sat down to dinner at $100 dollars each. While they dined, they were entertained by the French Opera orchestra.
Rotunda, Old St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana
During Reconstruction, the hotel was used for a few years by the state Legislature. Then the hotel was renovated and given a new name: the Royal Hotel, but it soon became neglected and very run-down because visitors preferred the St. Charles Hotel. Writer John Galsworthy paid a visit to New Orleans in 1912. He and his friends were taken into the old hotel on a tour to view the rotunda and the slave auction block. Their guide was an old woman who reminisced: "Yes, suh. Here they all came -- 'twas the finest hotel -- before the war-time; old Southern families -- buyin' an' sellin' their property."
In 1915, the old closed-up building was a veritable haven for rats and a bubonic plague scare made way for the demolition of the hotel. In its place stands the Omni Royal Orleans hotel.
The luxurious Omni Royal Orleans hotel at the corner of St. Louis and Chartres streets stands on a site once home to a hotel rotunda that was the site of the city's most infamous slave-auction block.
The Constitution of the United States included a provision that abolished the international slave trade after 1808. This boosted domestic slave trafficking. Since there was a large demand for slaves in Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia for the cultivation of sugar and cotton, slave traders went throughout the upper South to purchase slaves to be sold at auction in the lower South. Slaves from Virginia were especially desired for their training and intelligence and brought the highest prices.
Slaves in the upper South feared being sold into the lower South because of the harsh conditions and the hot climate. But hundreds of thousands of African Americans were forced to migrate South, tearing apart families. New Orleans became the center of the slave trade, especially after 1840, and the slave auction was one of the most cruel and inhumane practices of slavery.
Slave-trading firms kept "slave pens," where they held the people waiting to be sold or auctioned off. The rooms usually held fifty to 100 slaves, crowded together in unspeakable conditions before they were taken to one of the markets: the St. Louis Hotel, the St. Charles Hotel or the exchange on Esplanade Avenue.
Old St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans
Frederika Bremer, a Danish writer who visited one of the slave markets in the 1850s, described the black men and women, "silent and serious" standing against the walls. "I saw nothing especially repulsive in these places," wrote Bremer, "excepting the whole thing." (source: Best of New Orleans)