The Cathedral of New Orleans/La Cathedrale; lithograph by Jules Lion; 1842; THNOC; bequest of Richard Koch (1971.32)
Free people of color--people of African descent who lived in colonial and antebellum America and were born free or escaped the bonds of slavery before it was abolished in 1865--made significant contributions to the economies and cultures of the communities in which they lived but held an anomalous status in the racial hierarchy of the day. Inhabiting this place in between made their ambiguous and incongruent status one of the most talked about “problems” of the first half of the nineteenth century, yet their story has been largely overshadowed by the harsh story of slavery.
In Louisiana, free people of color enjoyed a relatively high level of acceptance and prosperity during the antebellum period, a legacy from the state’s French and Spanish antecedents, but their position and opportunities decreased as the American Civil War approached. They were most heavily concentrated in New Orleans, where they often worked as artisans and professionals. Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish, and the Natchitoches area also had significant numbers. Some were plantation owners and slaveholders. It is for their contributions to the arts that Louisiana’s free people of color have come to be best known, with many distinguishing themselves as authors. Further contributing to the diversity of free people of color, while Francophone and free blacks of French descent (“gens de couleur libres”) predominated the population, there were also many English-speaking free blacks who either moved to Louisiana from elsewhere or had Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Victor Sejour from La Presse Illustre; 1874; THNOC (2010.01763)
“Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past” is a collaboration among LSU Libraries Special Collections, the Historical Center at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library, The Historic New Orleans Collection, and Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection to bring together digitally the personal and family papers of free people of color and public records that relate to the group from the repositories’ collections. The project is made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The digitized materials will be accessible at no charge through the Louisiana Digital Library.
The digital resources created by the project will support new scholarship that explores and illuminates the complex history of free people of color and their significance in the ongoing story of race relations in the United States.