Although slave owners throughout the American South worked to convert their slaves to Christianity from African religions, the slaves did not easily give up their old beliefs. In Catholic New Orleans, Africans found ways to continue their faiths by synchronizing their pantheon of gods with the saints. Because New Orleans society permitted the existence of gens de couleur libres (free people of color) and because slaves were given more latitude to congregate than elsewhere in the colonies, African religious practices found a clandestine home in the city’s early history, forming an environment open for spiritualism.
After slaves started a massive revolt in 1791 on the island of St. Domingue, where present-day Haiti is, the assortment of beliefs and practices brought over from different parts of Western Africa coalesced into New Orleans voodoo. Both white and black residents of St. Domingue, also colonized by the French, fled to New Orleans which was attractive to them for its similar French heritage. Residents of St. Domingue already followed developed voodoo practices (in fact, an intense, well-attended voodoo ceremony inspired the slave revolt), and the refugees brought these traditions with them.
However, voodoo wouldn’t have penetrated into New Orleans culture as much as it did without the unifying force of the infamous Marie Laveau, who codified practices locally and gave the religion a beautiful but mysterious public face. Laveau is believed to have been the daughter of a white planter and a black Creole woman. For a while, she earned a living as a hairdresser, catering to a wealthy white clientele and learning their secrets through gossip, giving her insight into their affairs. Laveau bridged the world of white and black, with clients and followers of all walks of life who asked her to bring them luck, to cure ailments, to procure them their desired lovers, and to exact revenge on enemies. Another important figure of New Orleans voodoo was Dr. John, a dark-skinned, stately man with a tattooed face whose alleged powers brought him thousands of clients.
Voodoo both fascinated and repelled the white New Orleanians who came to watch the public rites that were held in Congo Square until 1857, where Armstrong Park is today. (More secretive, nocturnal rites were held elsewhere.) Rumors of spirit possessions, snake worship, zombies, and animal sacrifices scandalized them. But in private, they would consult voodoo priests and priestesses. Modern scholars argue that voodoo was a way for African-Americans to exert influence over the white ruling establishment, a manifestation of suppressed power.
In modern New Orleans, the word “voodoo” is no longer feared as it once was; restaurants, sports teams, and concerts use the word as a marketing concept. Shops in the French Quarter and in other neighborhoods still sell voodoo products, and a lot of them are geared to people who only see voodoo as an amusing diversion. But even in commercial voodoo shops, today’s serious practitioners can find the oils, icons, and gris gris they need for their ongoing ceremonies and worship.