Tomb of the Unknown Slave

Tomb of the Unknown Slave

 

It is unsurprising to find such a monument in New Orleans; not because it was home to slavery, because this no more true than any of the other southern states. It is because New Orleans probably had one of the most unique relationships with slavery.  Yes, it had slavery in exactly the way one might expect; there were those that were owned and those that owned people, there was abuse and misuse. But in true flamboyant style, New Orleans had a sort of upper class of slaves, if such a thing could exist. It was little more than a training school for slave mistresses (a Placee), but it was something that slaves (women anyway), could aspire to. Though many wealthy planters had wives chosen by their families, their black mistresses were chosen by them. They became their common law wives, that were recognized by a separate society made of the Placee and the wealthy white planters, the practice became know as Placage. In this way, slaves often came to be loved and cherished. The children born of these interactions were freed and created one of the only communities of free black people in the south,  who also owned slaves.  So slavery was more than just a system of haves with the seriously mistreated have nots, in New Orleans there were layers and complexities not found in any other communities. So I wasn’t surprised to find this monument, erected in a city where slavery had as much love in it as hate.

Tomb of the Unknown Slave

Tomb of the Unknown Slave

It is doubtful that the persons that erected this monument were thinking of Placage. But my thesis is that Placage made even the consideration of this monument possible. It is one of the few places where white and black people have almost always known and secretly acknowledged their relationship to each other. They may not have been close, but the white Smiths and  black Smiths know each other as not so distant relations. Perhaps, they all have the same great-grandfather…

We are in a time, when this acknowledgement can be made more open and without shame. I found myself the other day talking to a co-worker who said her grandma doesn’t quite look like a white woman, and proudly proclaims that is where she likely got all her behind. She has no proofs, but kind of likes the idea that she could be more than just a white woman. But even if the Smiths do nothing more than nod at each other across the street, they still know and secretly hate a little less because of it. At least that is my thinking…

So the Tomb of the Unknown Slave stands as a reminder and an apology for the wrongs of slavery and the dehumanizing nature of the institution. It says I see you and I say that you were someone worth mourning. It’s a start…