Trauma, Resistance, Transformation


Austin Hogans


January 2, 2023

Here in New Orleans, there are significant urban development and planning efforts underway for New Orleanians to re-engage water. In the Upper Ninth Ward, Crescent Park is now a site for joggers and dogwalkers. Upriver, the proposed River District “offers world-class restaurants, local flavors, and one-of-a-kind cuisine; curated local and national shops; culture and art with an abundance of public exhibits, interactive installations, and green spaces bringing people together alongside the beauty of the majestic Mississippi River.” At the lakefront, there are plans to revitalize Pontchartrain Beach, and grassroots efforts have spurred elected officials to commit public dollars to the restoration of Lincoln Beach. More broadly, the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan has popularized the phrase “living with water.” Outside of the grassroots efforts driving Lincoln Beach, these projects too often erase the Black experience and Black histories alongside the waters that flow through New Orleans. 

As we refashion our relationship to water, how can we acknowledge and honor this city’s waters as sites of trauma and resistance, and also of healing and transformation?   

2005 – Hurricane Katrina lands in New Orleans as a Category 3 hurricane. Storm surge overwhelms a poorly constructed and incomplete levee system, flooding much of the city. The world sees countless images of Black people suffering, floating in the floodwaters, pleading for help at the Superdome, displaced to other cities, and struggling to rebuild.

"Mapping the Slave Trade in New Orleans" -- The Historic New Orleans Collection created this graphic in 2015 for the exhibition "Purchased Lives," Red dots depict slave pens and auction houses located throughout the city and near by the riverfront. The base map is Norman's Plan of New Orleans & Environs from 1845.

Long before Katrina, though, water has been a site of trauma for Black people in New Orleans. The Mississippi River was a major conduit for the trading of enslaved people throughout the United States as well as the goods that were made by these people. New Orleans institutions and merchants facilitated the sundering of families and the centuries-long exploitation of Black people. A map that overlays auction markets, where humans were displayed like cars at a dealership, and pens for enslaved people shows their concentration in the heart of the colonial city and proximity to the riverfront. These locations, as critical as they are to understanding this city’s history and the geography of slavery, are more often than not unremarked. 

How might the design of waterfronts, streets, and public spaces make this history of exploitation and violence more visible?    

Plantations of the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans, 1858

A map from 1858 names the plantations and the plantation owners that made their fortunes along the banks of the Mississippi. Fine embellishments glorify the sugarcane and cotton that made the fortunes of these enslavers. The map erases by omission the Black people whose toil made the whole economy run, and whose descendants continue to inhabit the riverfront today. 

After slavery was abolished, many formerly enslaved people in the region remained in close proximity to the plantations where they once labored, settling in towns directly along the riverfront. Throughout southeast Louisiana, many plantations (with their advantageous riverfront locations) have been replaced by petrochemical plants and refineries, which poison the air, water, and soils of this region. This stretch of land, from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, is known variously as “Cancer Alley” and “Death Alley.” 

Left: Monument marking former site of Villere Plantation near Murphy Refinery, Chalmette, Louisiana (John Messina); Right: Estimated Cancer Risk from Point Sources of Pollution (EPA and Tulane Environmental Law Clinic)

Water displaces. Water poisons. Water turns human suffering into profit. Water ruptures families. In 2022, families grieve as three Black children drown in the Mississippi, one slipping and then the other two following to try to save the first.

Donovan Nelson’s depiction of Igbo Landing in charcoal. A group of Igbo march into a body of water rather than be enslaved. (Image via Valentine Museum of Art)

Water also heals and transforms. It has enabled Black resistance and survival throughout this nation’s history, and it plays an important spiritual role in the African American community. In 1803, a group of Igbo people rises up against their would-be enslavers and march together into a Georgia swamp in an act of mass suicide, choosing to drown and pass into another realm over captivity in this one. 

And whereever there is slavery, there are “maroons” escaping into the woods, swamps, and marshes to evade capture. Water can wash away tracks and scent that enslavers’ bloodhounds can follow. The swamp can provide sustenance even as it hides human presence within its shadows and wards off captors with its foreboding gloom.    

How can landscape and infrastructure design in New Orleans’s low-lying areas speak to this history of resistance in this region, especially when logging and modern forced drainage have removed so many of the swamps that once provided shelter and freedom? 

Left: River baptism in New Bern, North Carolina in early 20th century; Right: Screen capture from the music video for Beyoncé's "Love Drought"

1910 – a river baptism takes place in North Carolina. The water washes the person and purifies them, signifying a passing and rebirth into a new life. Baptism also anticipates the Messiah who is to come again. Over a century later, Beyoncé leads a line of Black women into water in her music video for “Love Drought.” Her album imagery weaves together images and stories of suffering and redemption, family tempests and Hurricane Katrina, Christian practices and Igbo Landing. 

For Black people, our relationship to water is all of these things. As we talk about “living with water” and urban planners and designers work on projects to reconnect us to waterways and water bodies, let’s remember the history of water as sites of violence and trauma, and also as sites of resistance, healing, and transformation. Choosing not to do so would be to erase the history of Black people in New Orleans.           


Austin Hogans is an architecture professional that strives to better understand and spread awareness on social and environmental issues. She currently works as an architectural designer at Trapolin Peer Architects, and has contributed maps and graphics research as part of the Water Map team.