Louisiana was named by a French discoverer to honor France’s King Louis XIV. Once part of the French Colonial Empire, the Louisiana Territory stretched from present-day Mobile Bay to just north of the present-day Canadian border, and included a small part of what is now southwestern Canada. France ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain in 1762 by the Treaty of Fountainbleau. Louisiana was retroceded to France on October 1, 1800, by the Treaty of San Idelfonso. The United States took possession of the territory on December 20, 1803 by virtue of the Louisiana Purchase. And on this day in history, the Territory of Orleans joined the United States as the state of Louisiana. The larger District of Louisiana was simultaneously renamed the Missouri Territory.
Louisiana has a unique legal system which is based on the French Napoleonic Code. Rulings in the French-influenced system derive from direct interpretation of the law; rulings in the common-law system give greater authority to legal precedent. (In practice, however, findings in both systems often dovetail with one another.) In addition, the Louisiana political and legal structure has maintained several elements from the times of French and Spanish governance, such as the use of the term “parish” instead of “county” for administrative subdivisions. Louisiana is divided into 64 parishes. (Alaska is the other exception to states with counties; it is instead divided into “boroughs” and “census areas.”)
Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had the biggest slave market in the United States. According to the 1860 census, 331,726 people were enslaved, nearly 47% of the state’s total population of 708,002. Enfranchised elite whites’ strong economic interest in maintaining the slave system contributed to Louisiana’s decision to secede from the Union in 1861. Louisiana’s secession was announced on January 26, 1861, and Louisiana became part of the Confederate States of America.
The state was taken over by the North relatively early in the Civil War, however, pursuant to Union perception of the importance of the Mississippi and its strategy to cut the Confederacy in two by seizing the Mississippi. Federal troops captured New Orleans on April 25, 1862, and placed New Orleans under Union-imposed martial law.
Racism persisted, however, an in May of 1866, four years of Union Army imposed martial law ended. Mayor John T. Monroe, who had headed city government before the Civil War and supported the Confederacy, was reinstated as acting mayor. The Louisiana Constitutional Convention that summer enacted “Black Codes,” laws passed by Louisiana and other Southern states with the intent and the effect of restricting African Americans’ freedom. On July 30, 1866, a delegation of black New Orleans residents marched behind the U.S. flag toward the convention center. Both the rioters and victims included people who were never part of the original confrontation. By the end of the rioting, estimates of casualties ranged as high as 300, including a number of black Union war veterans. Martial law was immediately reimposed in New Orleans.
The national reaction of outrage at the riots in Louisiana helped Republicans gain a majority in the 1866 national elections for Congress. It also generated support for the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended suffrage and full citizenship to freedmen, and for the Reconstruction Act of 1867 which, supplemented later by three related acts, divided the South (except Tennessee, which had already ratified the 14th Amendment and had been readmitted to the Union) into five military districts in which the authority of the U.S. Army commander was supreme.
Louisiana again saw violence in early 1873, with the Colfax Massacre. The results of the 1872 election were disputed, and blacks occupied the town. Armed whites, calling themselves “The White League,” surrounded the town and began bombarding it with cannon. Eventually, the blacks surrendered and somewhere between 60 to 100 African-American militiamen were murdered in cold blood by the White League.
In 1874, the White League staged an uprising in New Orleans (then the capital of Louisiana) to seize control of the state government. (The capital eventually moved to Baton Rouge.) Five thousand members of the White League, made up of Confederate veterans, fought against the outnumbered Metropolitan Police and state militia. Again, federal troops had to come in and suppress the White League.
Between 1890 and 1940, there were an estimated 4,000 lynchings in the United States, almost all of them in the South. The largest group lynching in this period was in New Orleans, but it was a lynching of Italian immigrants, rather than blacks. But the vast majority of those lynched were African Americans.
Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537, 1896), the famous 1896 Supreme Court case establishing the principle of “separate but equal” also came out of Louisiana. A Louisiana state law mandated that railroad companies were to have separate cars for black and white passengers. Remnants of the free black leadership from Reconstruction days organized a challenge to the law. They hired Albion Tourgee, a famous carpetbagger, to fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court, however, upheld the Louisiana law in an 8-1 decision, asserting that laws that separate the races are not a violation of the 14th Amendment and its guarantee of equal protection, so long as the facilities were separate but equal. The decision opened the door to the massive implementation of segregation by law in every area of life in the South.
The lone dissenter, John Marshall Harlan, was a former slaveowner from Kentucky, but viewed segregation as a violation of the principle of equality established by the Civil War. Harlan argued that freedom meant the right to participate equally and fully in American society; that segregation was a way of stigmatizing one group of citizens as unfit to associate with another group of citizens; and that this in itself was a violation of equality, regardless of whether the facilities were equal or not. (Justice Brown asserted in the opinion: “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” And as for how much “blood” determines to which race one belongs, he added, that’s a matter for each state to determine.)
Today Louisiana regularly shows up in lists of “top ten racists U.S. states.” One such list, for example, based on analysis of racist tweets and the number of Ku Klux Klan organizations known to operate in the state, puts Louisiana at number eight. Louisiana Tech is one of the schools being investigated for claims that members of The Sigma Alpha Epsilon national fraternity sang the same racist chant sung by members of the University of Oklahoma Chapter on a now-infamous video. Then there was the well-publicized 2012 incident in which, in the town of St. Martinville, Louisiana, part of a 1973 high school graduation reunion letter specifically asked for “White graduates only” for one of the events. In 2014, Baton Rouge Police Department 15-year veteran police officer Michael Elsbury was caught sending this text message about the mostly black community where he worked: “I wish someone would pull a Ferguson on them and take them out. I hate looking at those African monkeys at work … I enjoy arresting those thugs with their saggy pants.” One could provide many more incidents in this state in which only fifteen percent of white voters approve of President Obama. Louisiana’s Governor denied racism was a factor.
The state motto, shown on the flag, is “Union, Justice, Confidence.”
Louisiana is also notable for having the world’s longest porch swing; the longest bridge over water in the U.S. (The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway); the world’s largest freshwater river basin (The Atchafalaya Basin); and of course for the famous New Orleans Mardi Gras – celebrations beginning on or after the Epiphany or Kings Day and culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday.
Louisiana is known for its excellent Cajun and Creole cuisine. The Cajuns are descendants of the Acadians who were driven out of Canada in the 1700s because they wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the King of England. Today, Cajuns make up a significant portion of south Louisiana’s population. The Louisiana Cajun descendants speak a dialect of American English called Cajun English, with several also speaking Cajun French, a close relative of the original dialect from Canada influenced by Spanish and West African languages.
Louisiana Creole people are those who are descended from the colonial settlers of Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase, especially those of French, Spanish, African and/or Native American origins. The term “creole” denotes a culture which embraces these cultural influences.
Well-known Creole dishes include gumbo and jambalaya.