Black students confront slavery’s trauma in New Orleans and reflect on Haverford’s racial realities

Students listen to Ms. Denise Augustine (a seventh generation Creole griot, a West African term for culture bearers and storytellers) on a tour of New Orleans with Our Scared Stories – Angela Ochoa

Jazz: the source of most of the music you listen to every day: hip hop, pop, rock, and R&B. All these musical roads lead to one lively city: New Orleans, Louisiana. Yet the story of jazz, just as much of American society today, lies fastened to a history of enslavement and racial discrimination. 

For the eighteen students who traveled to New Orleans over Presidents’ Day Weekend, the vivacious atmosphere of the city was expected; but more, perhaps folded under more layers of nerves and pain, glared the city’s bloodstains. 

Sixth Former Jahmon Silver was appalled by how the city remains, in many aspects, segregated, desensitized, or ignorant of the past—especially considering the role that Black people had in forming the city’s identity. 

“I feel like the Black culture created this city and its entertainment, and the whole name of New Orleans as the city of jazz. There’s not as much appreciation for [the Black population and culture] as there should be.”

Jahmon Silver ’22

“I feel like the Black culture created this city and its entertainment, and the whole name of New Orleans as the city of jazz,” Silver said. “There’s not as much appreciation for [the Black population and culture] as there should be.”

But more than just jazz, the entire culture of the city has its roots in the Black culture that persisted and adapted through enslavement. Echoing Silver, Fifth Former Love McCune recalled a moment on the trip that tied the city’s history to the present. 

“What we learned, especially when we took a tour of the city with a guide, was a lot of how New Orleans uses African American culture heavily but doesn’t appreciate the people that created it. The lack of appreciation of Black people—and [even stemming] from [the lack of any recognition for] the enslaved people in the past—[Black people] impacted the city like no other,” McCune said.   

Some recurring symbols around the city troubled everyone on the trip. For one, New Orleans’ logo, the fleur de lis—found everywhere in the French Quarter district on street signs, restaurants, and even fence posts—once branded captured fugitive enslaved people when France ruled the city. And this practice was not just sparingly used, but rather codified in the inhumane lines of the French code for the enslaved, the Code Noir. Statues also heroize President Andrew Jackson, who supported and profited off of enslavement.

It’s triggering to see these symbols. It makes you feel that even though you’re free, you’re not really free. It makes you feel like they want you to feel lesser.

Jahmon Silver ’22

Silver said, “They still had things like the signs of ‘slave exchange’ up—just without the ‘slave,’ and just left ‘change’ there. It’s triggering to see these symbols. It makes you feel that even though you’re free, you’re not really free. It makes you feel like they want you to feel lesser. In times like Mardi Gras or all the celebrations that go on—without us, those types of things wouldn’t be as lively as they are.”

The original remaining letters of a once exchange market of enslaved peoples – Semaj Lee ’25

And as the trip occurred during Mardi Gras season, students witnessed a cornerstone of the city’s vibrant spirit. But even in the festivals, segregation was evident. 

“There were two different Mardi Gras that we went to. The first one, you saw all the Black people: they had all the Black girls dancing, they had all Black people on the parade [floats]. On the next day, [the second parade] was just all white people: you saw the kings and princesses, or whatever. Even the crowd was all white,” Fourth Former Musa Jabateh said.

In fact, as Third Former Semaj Lee explained, entirely separate festival traditions exist. 

“My dad was telling me about Black Mardi Gras, which is during fall. It’s called the Bayou Classic, where Grambling State and Southern University—two HBCUs—have a football game. But there are parades, similar to Mardi Gras, where there are all-Black festivals,” Lee said.

From the demographics alone, despite the city’s celebrated diversity, remnants of historic and current discrimination flow through New Orleans’ canals and rivers. 

“That segregation really never changed, because there are certain areas of the city that are all white people, and certain areas of the city that are all Black.”

Musa Jabateh ’24

“That segregation really never changed, because there are certain areas of the city that are all white people, and certain areas of the city that are all Black,” Jabateh said. 

One of the most transformative moments on the trip was a visit to the Whitney Plantation—a plantation once owned by German emigrant Ambroise Heidel, producing indigo, then sugar, and now a museum focused on the lives of enslaved people that sustained crop production.

“I told my dad we were arriving at the plantation, and he sent me pictures of our family plantation, just so I could make connections. It was almost the same: a tall white house—two stories tall—an overseer’s house,” Lee said. “[Despite the movies, TV shows, and textbooks,] that’s the first time I heard about an overseer. You would typically see that master beating the slaves, but it was really the overseer’s job. You saw the kitchen, the cabins, and everything.”

And more, with the similarity of the Whitney Plantation to that of his ancestors—only a few generations past—Lee sensed their agony.

“I had a conversation with my father afterward and asked him, ‘What would we do?’ My dad… he couldn’t give me any answer other than suicide.”

Semaj Lee ’25

“It made me put myself in their shoes. The whole time I was there, I was imagining me and all the Black kids I had around me being there and dealing with that on a day-to-day basis. I couldn’t imagine. I had a conversation with my father afterward and asked him, ‘What would we do?’ My dad… he couldn’t give me any answer other than suicide,” Lee said. 

The museum exposed the sexual abuse of both Black women and men that perpetuated the institution of enslavement. Especially after the U.S. ended trans-Atlantic trade in the enslaved in 1808, inhumane forced breeding—as though Black people were livestock—maintained the population of an enslaved labor force. This particular piece of the narrative struck McCune terribly.

Students listen to Ms. Denise on the tour of New Orleans at a stop memorializing the Atlantic Slave Trade – Mr. Jonathan Bacon

“Anytime, in terms of slavery, I don’t really like talking about the sexual assault because I love all the Black women around me, especially my family, and I couldn’t imagine this happening to them,” McCune said. “It hurts my heart.”

Despite knowing some facts about forced reproduction, the level to which it occurred and the horrors associated with the system still shocked McCune. 

… how they treated Black women and men—how some of them even died from [violent sexual assault]. Like they would be oversexualized to the point of exhaustion. It’s crazy, I didn’t even know that that was possible.

Love McCune ’23

“When I walked in, I was trying to avoid those parts; but then I read something about how they treated Black women and men—how some of them even died from [violent sexual assault]. Like they would be oversexualized to the point of exhaustion,” McCune said. “It’s crazy, I didn’t even know that that was possible.”

Like Lee, McCune could almost see himself, his Black friends, and the Black women in his life in this system of sexual abuse—and such a thought chilled him. 

 “[On] my mom’s side of the family, all the women are light-skinned. And it just hits so hard because they used to call the light-skinned [women] ‘fancies,’ and [white men] treated them like objects, to the point of [rape],” McCune said.

“That could’ve been my aunt, that could’ve been my sister, my cousin, my aunt, my mom, whoever. That could’ve been all of us [African American people],” he continued. “That’s where these conversations get so rough because there’s so much empathy to what they went through that it feels like it happened to you.” 

At another point on the plantation’s self-guided tour stood a memorial to the German Coast Uprising of 1811—the largest enslaved people’s revolt in the United States, which occurred in present-day New Orleans. Of the enslaved people who died in the uprising, those captured were decapitated; their heads were then placed on pikes along the Mississippi River to terrorize others.

The memorial recaptured the scene with rows of the heads of young Black men on poles: some held their mouths ajar—like they were gasping for a final breath of air—others tilted their heads toward the sky with their eyes shut—jarringly at peace. 

The memorial recaptured the scene with rows of the heads of young Black men on poles: some held their mouths ajar—like they were gasping for a final breath of air—others tilted their heads toward the sky with their eyes shut—jarringly at peace. 

Silver recalled the vivid image’s impact.

The German Coast Uprising Memorial, portraying the decapitated heads of the captured enslaved people, at the Whitney Plantation – Mason Wiegand ’25

“At first, I didn’t even believe the memorial, like I understood the idea and the background behind it, but just the sight of it made me uncomfortable. You had to sit there and look at it for a second just to know how painful it really was,” Silver said.

He thought of the suffering of these men’s families and communities.

“You couldn’t even imagine … to walk past the river and see their dad, husband, or brother’s head on the pike with blood dripping and their eyes and everything. … How could someone be so evil?”  

Musa Jabateh ’24

“You couldn’t even imagine how the sons and wives of the men who rebelled would see [the decapitated heads]—or the brothers, uncles—just to walk past the river and see their dad, husband, or brother’s head on the pike with blood dripping and their eyes and everything. Even now, it just gives me chills. How could someone be so evil?”  

For Jabateh, his reaction to touring the plantation was different, yet still deeply personal and linked to a larger issue of racial discrimination.

“I didn’t really feel the deep connection, just because I knew that none of my people were on a plantation,” Jabateh said. “I do feel a bit of hatred because we are still affected by the aftermath of it—like systematic racism.”

And, along this line, students identified the same frustration and hurt that the trip to New Orleans as a whole invigorated upon returning home. Jabateh described a glimpse of the discrimination he experiences.

“And [the police officer] was real hype, he tried to pull the gun out on me. It’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ We are still affected by the aftermath of [enslavement] today.”

Musa Jabateh ’24

“I remember I was at a party: I wasn’t doing anything, but they had kicked me out for some reason. And I’m waiting for my Uber, and then I end up getting pulled over and arrested for loitering. And I was like, ‘Come on, you’re arresting me for what? I didn’t even do nothing.’ And [the police officer] was real hype, he tried to pull the gun out on me. It’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ We are still affected by the aftermath of [enslavement] today.”

At Haverford, the conversation about racial discrimination is not new. Community members discussed discrimination against Black students in March 2018 in the Index article “Upper School hopes to heal racial rifts,” and tension emerged once again in February 2019, examined in the article “A house divided: racial tensions fester.” 

Students visited GrowDat, a youth farm initiative run by Black women and redefining farming for Black youth on the land of an old plantation – Ben Gulle

And in the September 2020 article “Students join local Black Lives Matter marches,” students recounted their experience protesting as part of a larger movement that grew after the police killing of multiple Black Americans. For some members of the current generation of Black students to pass through Wilson Hall, New Orleans connected today’s descrimination to that of the past.  

“[Segregation] resonated with me because it showed [what happens] even though [people] might find you entertaining or they might enjoy what you do. … Our Black student body does a lot here, and sometimes that recognition isn’t what it should be.”

Love McCune ’23.

“[Segregation] resonated with me because it showed [what happens] even though [people] might find you entertaining or they might enjoy what you do. I think that applies to our community. Our Black student body does a lot here, and sometimes that recognition isn’t what it should be,” McCune said. 

And even when Black students receive recognition, Silver explained, it is limited.

” Like even if you’re a Black kid that does a lot in this school—like you could be a part of student council, you could be a part of this and that—you’re still looked at as an athlete.”

Jahmon Silver ’22

“Here, I feel like as an athlete and a student, we don’t get that recognition. Like even if you’re a Black kid that does a lot in this school—like you could be a part of student council, you could be a part of this and that—you’re still looked at as an athlete. You’re not given that full student-athlete look. And I think that’s really what needs to change,” Silver said. 

Jabateh elaborated that this discrimination goes beyond stereotypes, into biased treatment. 

“Us Black kids, I feel like, we’re not treated fairly at this school. Obviously, we get the same education and stuff, but it’s the little things. I feel like some white kids are able to slide in certain things when a Black kid can’t,” Jabateh said. 

The three other Black students echoed this sentiment.

“It happens every day. That happened to me in middle school, and you can’t even say anything because you don’t have any authority, and [at that time] there was no Black representation in the middle school in the teachers—who didn’t even understand what I was saying, so they handled it how they saw fit,” McCune said.

Students peer around the historic Preservation Hall, which has holding music sessions to perserve traditional New Orleans_ jazz since 1961 – Mr. Jonathan Bacon

Lee recounted a similar incident this year in which a student made light of enslavement. The resolution, Lee thought, was not productive; the administration was involved, though not as much as he wished.

Lee said, “I brought the case to the administration and … they couldn’t put any consequences on the student because the other people that were there didn’t recall the incident, but all the people that were there were his friends.” 

But even at a meeting to resolve the issue, Lee perceived that the goal was to guide the student toward an apology—a forced apology.

“I just received a lackluster apology. [I felt that] he didn’t really feel the need to apologize, or didn’t feel the courage to,” Lee said.

And the conversation became more frustrating for Lee as it shifted to building a mutual understanding.  

“And I’m thinking, ‘If I’m the victim of the situation, why do I have to look at both sides? Why do I have to look at his view of … why it may have been hard for him to apologize?

Semah Lee ’25

“The focus of that conversation was to look at both sides. And I’m thinking, ‘If I’m the victim of the situation, why do I have to look at both sides? Why do I have to look at his view of why he said that or why it may have been hard for him to apologize?’” Lee said.

The community’s reaction to this incident upset Lee.  

“So I feel like, no matter what happens to us, we are not treated equally.”

Semaj Lee ’25

 “So I feel like, no matter what happens to us, we are not treated equally,” Lee said.  

The trip to New Orleans, besides emphasizing the connection of U.S. enslavement to present-day experiences, inspired students with the resistance the city’s Black population has shown.

A horse rider flying the U.S. flag during the primarily Black Mardi Gras – Ben Gulla

  “As a whole, New Orleans’ history is very empowering because you can take it two different ways. You can take it as tragedy and loss. But you can also see how resilient our people are, and how that still carries on today,” Lee said. “That mindset is how we carry ourselves and the goals that we have, despite that the odds are against us.”

“How we all persevere through all of that to beat the odds. How [my ancestors] perserved through all that torture and punishment,” Lee said. “My dad and I—I’d rather kill myself than sit there for entire years in my life.” 

Silver further described how New Orleans and the plantation did, on one hand, show him the progress that has been made. 

“It really showed me how we are way freer than they were. Because that’s really what they worked for. If they saw us right now, they wouldn’t believe their eyes—how free we are now.”

Jahmon Silver ’22

“It really showed me how we are way freer than they were. Because that’s really what they worked for. If they saw us right now, they wouldn’t believe their eyes—how free we are now. And it just made me really grateful, it showed me that sometimes you need a reminder for how much you really have,” Silver said. 

Thus, for him, the trip offered him some optimism.  

“You can get caught up in the daily life thinking that you need this and that, but stuff like [enslavement] really show you [how] much you have now, and what your ancestors did to put you in this position, you wouldn’t have to go through what they went through,” Silver said. “That was the most unsettling thing for me, but I feel like I needed that to cherish what I have now.”  

But optimism does not solve a systematic issue like racism—it is more a mindset with which to store in the back of their minds as they work for equality. The reality that they see, especially considering everything that their ancestors have already done, is, well, sad. 

“They fought so hard and did so much—and yeah, we’re in a better situation, but it’s still not enough. Like we’ve still got to continue to fight the battles, and we’ve still got to continue to be the new voices so that the next generation can suffer less.”

Musa Jabateh ’24

“They fought so hard and did so much—and yeah, we’re in a better situation, but it’s still not enough. Like we’ve still got to continue to fight the battles, and we’ve still got to continue to be the new voices so that the next generation can suffer less,” Jabateh said. 

A sculpture at Louis Armstrong Park of Black musicians playing brass instruments – Anthony Carter

And with the knowledge that they’ve gained about the past from New Orleans, these students look to create this change.  

“… my people in my family have gone through way too much for me to just let that slide. They had to fight for their freedom, and I’m just going to let that [disrespect] slide now?”

Semaj lee ’25

“To see those connections to what my family had to go through, just connecting all the dots—it was really empowering… When I came back, I thought, ‘I’m not taking any disrespect anymore,’ because my people in my family have gone through way too much for me to just let that slide,” Lee said. “They had to fight for their freedom, and I’m just going to let that [disrespect] slide now?”

“I’ve got to face their hatred with knowledge. Knowledge is power.”

Semaj Lee ’25

“I’m going to use the knowledge I’ve gained from New Orleans and what my father has told me over the years to rebrand the culture at this school and hold people accountable. I’ve got to face their hatred with knowledge,” Lee said. “Knowledge is power.”

Author: Jeffrey Yang '22

Jeffrey Yang is an editor-in-chief of the Index, and has been a contributor to the newspaper since 2018. He also works on the school literary magazine, Pegasus, and the yearbook, Haligoluk, and participates in Reading Olympics, Model UN, and Cross Country.