Pieces of History: the Story of a jacket and the Enslaved Man Who Wore it.

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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) —An exhibition at The Historic New Orleans Collection showcases the lifestyle of the Antebellum south before 1865. Piece of History celebrates the tenth anniversary of The Historic New Orleans Collections’ DAGS project.

Sarah Duggan is a Researcher and Historian at THNOC. She has been the coordinator of the DAGS project for five years and says, “the project is in the mission of documenting and sharing information about historic objects made or used in the Gulf South prior to 1865.”

Historians from THNOC travel every summer throughout the region and bring along either, two gradute student or emerging professional fellowships. Their mission is to document artifacts by preserving them in an online database.

“What’s unique about DAGS, is that we are usually not acquiring the objects that we’re documenting. These articles are in private family collections and private homes. I really enjoy the work we do and it’s the people that make this project so wonderful. They welcome us into their homes, for us to go through their furniture and turn their living room into a mobile photography studio,” explains Duggan.

Back in 2011, the first DAGS team discovered a Jacket in Saint Francisville, Louisiana. The jacket is a central piece in the Pieces of History exhibition and is in a case by the front.

Sarah Duggan says, “its a wool livery coat that was worn by a young man, who was probably a teenager. He was enslaved in a household here in New Orleans. What’s really important about objects like this is, they help to tell the story of people who are otherwise anonymous.

There isn’t much information about the enslaved young man in records. He remains nameless. Dr. William Newton Mercer, was an ex-army surgeon in the war of 1812. Mercer owned the young man who wore the livery jacket.

Mercer was one of the wealthiest men in the region. His business was in cotton and his house is where the Boston Club is today on Canal Street in New Orleans. Mercer owned four plantations across Louisiana and Mississippi, along with over 450 enslaved people, by the year 1860.

With close inspection, you can see Mercer’s insignia on the silver buttons of the coat. The jacket itself was made in the 1850’s by Brook’s Brothers in New York City. Brook’s Brothers would sell clothes to plantation owners for slaves for a profit, but would later sell uniforms to the Union Army.

“This coat highlights a theme that we try to emphasize in this exhibit. The slavery economy and the practice of enslaving people and exploiting their labor is a crucial part of what builds the wealth of the Gulf South at the time but it’s also building the wealth of other parts of the country as well.”

Pieces of History will be on display through September 5th.

Sarah Duggan will be giving a special presentation about the livery coat, August 6th during the 2021 Virtual Antiques Forum.

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