If most Americans today are aware that some black men and women, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, were able to escape from southern plantations and live in freedom in the North, few realize that free African Americans also lived in and occasionally prospered in places where slavery was so deeply rooted that it took a war to abolish it. One such place was Louisiana.
During the antebellum period, Louisiana's free people of color enjoyed a relatively high level of acceptance and prosperity, a legacy of the state's French and Spanish founders, but as the American Civil War approached, white society increasingly turned against them. Most heavily concentrated in New Orleans, many worked as artisans and professionals. Significant numbers were also found in Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish, and the Natchitoches area, where 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, artists, and musicians. Only in the last few decades have historians themselves begun to appreciate the complexity of free black communities and their significance to our understanding not just of the past, but also the present.
The fact that free people of color, particularly in the South, never made it into the mainstream narrative of American history is extraordinary considering their status was one of the most talked about issues of the first half of the nineteenth century. Even where their numbers were small, they made significant contributions to the economies and cultures of the communities in which they lived, and, as a group, exerted a strong influence on government policy and public opinion at a time of increasing polarization over the issue of slavery.
Nor did their story lose its relevance once the abolition of slavery had rendered all Americans legally free. Discrimination against freedmen, blacks who had never known slavery, and Creoles of Color in the post-bellum South led many of them to seek a better life elsewhere, where many of mixed-race heritage were able to "pass" in their new communities. As a result of their exodus, southern black communities were deprived of talented leaders, businessmen, role models, and cultural brokers at the time when they were most needed. Those who remained, however, cooperated with other African Americans in the long struggle for civil rights.
This project hopes to contribute to the rediscovery of these "forgotten" people and their role in the state's racial, political, economic, social, and cultural past.
Contexts: Free People of Color in the Americas, 1492-1830
The history of free people of color in the Americas extends back to the beginning of the Age of Exploration. The crew of Christopher Columbus's first expedition included a free black sailor. Juan Garrido, a black conquistador, traveled with Ponce de Léon and Pánfilo de Narváez in what is now the United States and Mexico, while Juan Valiente, a free black man from Cádiz, helped lead the first Spanish expedition to Chile. Estéban de Dorantes, a negro alárabe ("Arabized black"), saved the shipwrecked explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his men from certain death by posing as a shaman and persuading Native Americans to share their food.
Free people of color played an important role in Spain's New World empire as soldiers, sailors, artisans, and laborers. Manumission, by which slaves were granted or purchased their freedom, had been customary in the Iberian Peninsula as far back as Roman times and was transplanted by the Spanish and Portuguese to their American colonies, giving rise to a large and vibrant population of free people of color.
The Roman Catholic faith, which, at least initially, discouraged the enslavement of anyone who had accepted Christianity, contributed to the relatively liberal attitude of the Spanish and Portuguese toward free people of color.
In some ways, the French had a similar outlook, imagining a society where class was more important than race and in which everyone was entitled to fair treatment, provided they had been baptized into the Catholic Church. For all its harshness, the French Code Noir, adopted in 1685, included articles protecting the rights of freed slaves, which were essentially the same as those of whites, with the exception that they could not vote, hold public office, or marry a white person. While generally, the French, Spanish, and Portuguese codes treated slaves and free blacks less harshly and offered greater legal protection than did Protestant nations, in practice, local conditions such as slave revolts and the distance of the colonies from central administrative control probably more directly affected their experiences.. The French were also more tolerant of racial mixing, especially in sparsely settled frontier societies like Louisiana, where there were significantly fewer white women than men. At the same time, they developed elaborate color categories to define the results of that mixing.
In the British colonies, people of African descent, whether free or not, faced severe social and legal restrictions. Race, for the British, was as important as class. Most of the English colonies in North America and the Caribbean passed formal black codes between the 1670s and 1750s. Slaves there had almost no legal standing, and freed slaves and freeborn Africans had few civil rights. Individuals had to carry "freedom papers" wherever they went, as proof of their status, and those without them ran the risk of being re-enslaved.
Free black communities existed up and down the eastern seaboard of North America. The largest was in Philadelphia, which through the influence of Quaker antislavery activists had opened its doors to black men and women in the mid eighteenth century. Other cities with significant populations of free blacks were Boston, Providence, New York, and Charleston. The first man killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770 was Crispus Attucks, a free mixed-race sailor. Four African Americans fought at the Battle of Lexington in the American Revolution, and some historians have estimated that as much as one-fifth of the rebel army that recaptured Boston from the British was black. Although George Washington discouraged free colored men from enlisting in the Continental Army, they joined anyway.
In the southern colonies during the Revolution, free blacks served in colonial regiments and militias, but were more likely to assist the British. At war's end, almost all black loyalists were transported to Canada, Britain, the West Indies, or Sierra Leone, reducing the South's already small free black population. That said, in 1790, the state with the largest population of free blacks was Virginia.
The era of the Early Republic in the U.S. saw the formal abolition of slavery in most northern states as well as the creation of the Northwest Territory, where slavery was outlawed from the beginning. Even in the Upper South, the number of manumissions rose. The free African-American population of the North grew from about 27,000 in 1790 to 138,000 in 1830; in the Upper South in the same period, it went from 30,000 to 150,000. This rise in population was due for the most part to natural growth. In states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, runaway slaves were a contributing factor, though some of the new states of the Midwest, particularly Illinois, enacted severe "Black Laws" to limit African-American migration there.
Free people of color worked in a wide range of professions. In the North, many acquired small farms. Land ownership by free blacks in the South was less common, and those who worked in agriculture were often overseers and occasionally bookkeepers, business managers, and attorneys on the farms of white relatives. Many white planters, in fact, preferred to hire free blacks as managers because they would work for a lower salary than whites and were viewed as being more familiar with slave culture. In cases where the employer and employee were related—white fathers often employed their mixed-race children—there may have been an element of trust beyond what would have existed had the employee been a slave or an unrelated white worker.
Free people of color occasionally became affluent farmers and businesspeople in their own right, especially in Louisiana. The navy and merchant marine were other common career paths for free black men. Some became craftsmen and artisans or worked as unskilled laborers at jobs that white people did not want to do. Others became ministers or, in Catholic areas like Louisiana, took religious orders. Free African-American women in cities typically found work as domestic servants, washerwomen, and seamstresses. A fortunate few owned boarding houses. The least fortunate worked as prostitutes.
The conditions in which free people of color lived varied, but were often deplorable, especially in northern cities, where many could only afford lodging in attics and cellars. Though free, they still suffered from racial prejudice. As historian Donald Wright has written, "Simply because many northern whites condemned slavery did not mean that they cared at all for persons of African descent." Most saw blacks as inferior and as competitors for jobs.
In both North and South, free blacks faced segregation in public places. Mob violence targeted at black citizens occurred in many northern cities in the early 1800s. African-American churches in New York and Philadelphia were regularly vandalized, and in Providence in 1824, a white mob tore down every single building in one of the city's black neighborhoods. A riot in Cincinnati in 1829 resulted in more than 1,000 African Americans leaving the United States altogether and moving to Canada.
The dire social and living conditions of black men and women in Northern society, in fact, were used as an argument against emancipation by slavery's defenders, who sincerely believed that free blacks in northern cities were worse off than slaves on southern plantations.
Early Days: Colonial Louisiana, 1718-1803
Ironically, given its later history, there was one place where free people of color enjoyed a relatively high level of acceptance and prosperity during the eighteenth century: Louisiana. Although Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all had larger free black populations, their influence and social significance were arguably greatest in Louisiana.
The first free blacks in Louisiana were probably slaves who escaped and lived with American Indian tribes. A court case from 1722 is the first record of a free man of color in the struggling colony. Two years later, a free black man filed suit against a white man. The earliest record of a marriage between two free people of color dates from 1725. Louis Congo, Louisiana's first executioner, was a free black man. Another, Jean Congo, is listed in the 1726 census as a toll collector and keeper of the High Road along Bayou St. John, documenting that some people of color in colonial Louisiana held professional positions. In the winter of 1729-30, the Natchez Indians laid siege to Fort Rosalie at what is now Natchez, Mississippi. Many of the slaves that fought with the French relief force were given their freedom in reward for their service. The earliest surviving record of a slave manumission dates from 1733, when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, New Orleans's founder, freed two slaves who had been in his service for twenty-six years. It became common practice in Louisiana for elderly slaves to be freed and also for masters, in their wills, to free individual slaves or entire families.
In 1763, France ceded Louisiana to Spain to compensate it for its losses in the Seven Years' War. The colony's transfer marked the beginning of the most liberal period in Louisiana's history in regard to free people of color. The Spanish enacted a new set of laws called Las siete partidas. These laws offered slaves greater protection from mistreatment by whites and made it easier for them to acquire their freedom. Blacks who were already free could now serve in the militia, buy and sell their own slaves, and were protected from arbitrary police searches. Although the law forbidding mixed-race marriages remained, it was frequently ignored. Free people of color were able to live lives not remarkably different from those of whites of similar social and economic status.
In addition to marriages, extramarital relationships between the races existed. It became an accepted practice in Louisiana for white men (married and unmarried) to take black paramours. These relationships were often longstanding. Some historians have argued that free women of color desired to be the mistresses of white men because it improved their status and security as well as their children's. Dozens of these women in the late eighteenth century acquired valuable property through their relationships with their white partners or fathers. By one estimate, a quarter of the houses along the main streets of New Orleans were owned by free blacks, many of whom were single women. At Natchitoches in central Louisiana, Marie Thérèse Metoyer (better known as "Coincoin") managed several large estates given to her by a French official with whom she had a 25 years-long liaison and ten children. (Her offspring formed the basis of the large settlement of free people of color that lived along the Cane River.) Successions of prominent white men as late as the 1850s acknowledge and bequeath property or money to their illegitimate children of color. Historians have also argued that, in other instances, it was the woman who had the economic upper hand in such arrangements when the white man enjoyed lesser financial means than she.
Transition: Louisiana's Territorial Period, 1803-1812
At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, at least one in six of the roughly 8,000 people living in New Orleans was a free person of color. The city's population, both white and black, increased significantly between 1791 and 1810 due to an influx of émigrés displaced by the Haitian Revolution (led by Toussaint Louverture, a free man of color). The first official U. S. census of Orleans Territory in 1810 counted 7,585 free persons of color, compared to 34,311 whites and a total population of 76,556.
The influx of black refugees from Haiti heightened anxieties among Louisiana's white population. Over the previous twenty years, the colony/territory had only narrowly escaped several slave rebellions. Free people of color, it was argued, would only incite further unrest. The situation was made worse by the departure in 1803 of the Spanish, who had treated the group, for the most part, with a liberal hand. Territorial governor William C. C. Claiborne was pressured not only by President Thomas Jefferson's administration, but also by Louisiana's French-speaking white inhabitants to reduce the number of free men of color who served in the militia. Some wanted to see a reduction in the size of the free black population altogether.
In 1806, the territorial legislature passed an act (never fully enforced) prohibiting free black males from entering Louisiana and ordering those over the age of fifteen who had been born elsewhere to leave (Louisiana's native free people of color had been granted U. S. citizenship in 1803). In 1812, one year after the failed German Coast uprising (the largest slave rebellion in U. S. history), free black men were denied the right to vote. Throughout this period and until the abolition of slavery made their separate legal status obsolete, free persons of color were required to carry passes, observe curfews, and to have their racial status designated in all public records.
Golden Age: The Early Antebellum Era, 1812-1830
Despite the restrictions imposed during the territorial period, the granting of statehood in 1812 coincided with the beginning of the "golden age" of free people of color in Louisiana. Though many left for Europe, the Caribbean, or Latin America, others stayed behind, lured by Louisiana's booming economy (at the outbreak of the Civil War, the state was the richest in the Union and New Orleans the third largest city). Free colored men and women could own, inherit, and sell property, including slaves. Large plantations on the outskirts of New Orleans were sold off and subdivided to form new neighborhoods where free blacks purchased plots of land alongside whites. Many became involved in important New Orleans social and cultural institutions such as opera, theaters, balls, benevolent groups, and the church. Louisiana's free black population rose from just under 11,000 in 1820 to about 25,000 in 1840, keeping pace with the rise of white and slave populations and representing about seven percent of the state's total population.
Free people of color worked in many of the trades that white people worked in, ranging from shopkeeping and general unskilled labor to more specialized lines of work such as carpentry, stonecutting, and metalworking. Historian David Rankin determined from the 1850 census that of all American cities, New Orleans "had the highest percentage of free black males employed as artisans, professionals, and entrepreneurs, and the lowest in 'low opportunity' occupations like laborer, mariner, gardener, servant, and waiter. New Orleans also contained more than a quarter of all free men of color employed as professionals, managers, artists, clerks, and scientists in the fifteen largest cities in the United States."
It is for their contributions to the arts that Louisiana's free people of color have come to be best known. Many distinguished themselves as authors. Armand Lanusse published Les Cenelles, an anthology of poetry by free men of color, in 1845. One contributor to the work, Victor Séjour, is regarded as Louisiana's greatest French-language playwright. Jules Lion, one of Louisiana's first lithographers, was a native of France who came to New Orleans around 1830; he is thought to have introduced photography to the state. Eugène and Daniel Warburg, sons of a German-Jewish real estate speculator and his slave, became highly regarded sculptors and marble workers, carving many of the elaborate tombs for which New Orleans is so well known. Although the composers Basile Barès and Edmond Dédé would write their finest works after the Civil War, they grew up during the "golden age" of free people of color in New Orleans and were influenced by the city's mixture of African, Caribbean, and European cultural traditions. Barès also published works as a slave, only gaining his freedom shortly before his master's death, after which Barès continued to run the music business his former master had owned.
A few free people of color were highly successful in business. The merchant and real estate broker Bernard Soulié doubled his capital from $50,000 to $100,000 in the 1850s. A decade earlier, Eulalie de Mandeville Macarty acquired her personal fortune of $150,000 through a combination of gifts from a white lover, her family's wealth, and her own dry goods business. Pierre Casanave, the Haitian-born clerk of Jewish businessman and philanthropist Judah Touro, used the $10,000 legacy that his employer left him to set himself up as a commission merchant and undertaker. By 1864, he was said to be worth $100,000. Thomy Lafon amassed perhaps the greatest fortune of all—half a million dollars—through brokering and property speculation and was among Louisiana's most prominent philanthropists, contributing to charities, schools, hospitals, and antislavery societies. Another philanthropist, Marie Couvent, the African-born widow of the wealthy black businessman Bernard Couvent, left money in her will when she died in 1837 that was used to found the Institute Catholique, one of the first schools in the United States to provide a free education to children of African descent. The daughter of one of the oldest families of free people of color in New Orleans, Henriette Delille, made a name for herself as the foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family, the second oldest Catholic religious order for women of color. The Sisters worked with the poor, the sick, the elderly, and among slaves, founded a school for girls in 1850, and opened a hospital for needy black Orleanians.
Louis Charles Roudanez, trained as a doctor in France and New England, owned a successful medical practice in New Orleans in the 1850s, treating both white and black patients. In 1864, he began publishing the French-language La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans, the nation's first African-American daily newspaper. Norbert Rillieux, though not a businessman, made an important contribution to the business life of Louisiana when he invented, in 1843, a new technique of sugar refining that revolutionized the industry.
In recent years, historians have begun to look beyond New Orleans at free black populations in other parts of Louisiana, where, by all accounts, they were just as successful. The first record of a free black living on the prairies of southwestern Louisiana is from 1766. The 1774 census of the Opelousas district indicates that this same man owned two slaves and fifty cattle, a notable fact at a time when, according to historian Carl Brasseaux, only 22 percent of households in this part of Louisiana owned slaves and only 18 percent of freeholders possessed fifty cattle. In 1810, white males in the area around Opelousas outnumbered white females by a margin of almost 500, resulting in liaisons with slaves that evolved into common-law marriages in which the female was eventually emancipated.
Many free black households were controlled by matriarchs. Marie Simien, in 1818, owned nine slaves and more than 7,500 acres of land, including 1,400 acres of prime farmland in St. Landry Parish. The largest family of free black planters and merchants outside of New Orleans was the Metoyer family of Natchitoches Parish, which intermarried with other black planters. In 1830, the family owned nearly eight percent of the slaves in Natchitoches Parish. Some individuals owned no land or slaves but worked as plantation overseers. Aaron Griggs, for example, worked on Antonio Patrick Walsh's plantation in West Feliciana Parish in the 1820s. Others lived in towns, typically working as builders. Free blacks were living in Baton Rouge at least as early as 1782. In 1850, eighty of the 159 free blacks in Lafayette Parish were living in Vermilionville (now Lafayette), and nearly half of the free black population of St. Martin Parish lived in the towns of St. Martinville and New Iberia. Much of the free black population of the "bayou country" fled in the 1850s as racial tensions mounted, and many of those who remained were driven out in 1859 by bands of white vigilantes.
Decline and Civil War, 1830-1865
Many southerners, already on the defensive in regard to slavery, worried that free people of color would collaborate with abolitionists. In addition, with southerners' perceived threat to slavery, race-based distinctions became more important than one's legal status. As a result, Louisiana's "golden age" of free people of color fell into decline around 1830, the beginning of an era of particularly harsh legislation regarding African Americans, both slave and free. It became a crime to publish anything criticizing white supremacy; masters wishing to free their slaves had to post a $1,000 bond guaranteeing that freed slaves would leave the state within thirty days; and all blacks were prohibited from testifying against whites in court. In 1855, free people of color were banned from assembling or forming any new organizations or societies. The emancipation of slaves was outlawed entirely in 1857, and, as during the territorial period, free persons of color were required to carry passes, observe curfews, and have their racial status designated in all public records.
Other factors also played a part in free blacks leaving Louisiana. An influx of Irish and German immigrants, who displaced free black tradesmen and were willing to work at unskilled jobs for low wages, began in the 1830s. The Panic of 1837 severely affected the state and pressured some wealthy blacks to sell property. Due to multiple factors, Louisiana's free black population shrank over the next twenty years. Many left to seek a better life in the North, France, Haiti, and Latin America. Some, no doubt, were able to "pass" as white, and so no longer were counted among free people of color. Others still were resettled in Africa and Mexico by colonization societies. On the eve of the Civil War, free people of color represented just 2.6 percent of the population of Louisiana, a decline from 7.7 percent in 1830.
Those who remained faced divided loyalties when the Civil War broke out in 1861. In May of that year, about 1,500 free black New Orleanians responded to Confederate governor Thomas Overton Moore's call for troops, forming the Louisiana Native Guard. Although its colonel was white, it was the first military unit in American history to have black officers. In the Cane River region of northwest Louisiana, two free black units were formed, the Augustin Guards and Monette's Guards, but both were rejected for service. Why free people of color volunteered to defend the Confederacy is a matter of debate. Some may have seen it as a way to enhance their position in society. Others probably feared that they or their property would be harmed if they did not conform. After the fall of New Orleans, some Native Guard members formed a new unit as part of the Union Army. Swelled by runaway slaves, it was soon divided into three regiments, two of which participated in the siege of Port Hudson. Captain André Cailloux, a respected businessman before the war, was killed in the action. His death, widely reported in the press, became a rallying cry for African American recruitment.
For free people of color who owned plantations and slaves, the war was a mixed blessing, bringing greater freedom, but destroying the state's economy and causing significant property loss. A string of droughts and crop failures, together with the need to grow food rather than cash crops during the Union blockade, contributed to the economic turmoil. Plantations owned by free people of color, moreover, were not spared the ravages of Union troops, who carried off livestock, crops, farm implements, and household items. With no capital, slaves, or money to hire workers, free black planters had to work their own fields. As historian Gary Mills has written, "Instead of elevation to a position of full citizenship and equality, the once influential families of color were now publicly submerged into the new mass of black freedmen—a class and a culture with which they had no identification and one that harbored much resentment toward them."
Legacies: Louisiana's "Creoles of Color" after the Civil War
Although most African-American planters, like their white counterparts, were ruined by the Civil War, other free people of color prospered in the war's wake. In politics, especially, they emerged as the leaders for Louisiana's black population. During Reconstruction, many were elected to the state legislature, and for a short time, P.B.S. Pinchback, the son of a white Georgian planter and his slave, served as Louisiana's governor; he was later elected to Congress. Despite their common political situation, though, English-speaking blacks such as Pinchback were not readily accepted as leaders by a Creole elite who had their own aspirations to leadership. These two camps crystalized around two newspapers, one started by Pinchback and one by the prominent physician Charles Roudanez. The latter's La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans / The New Orleans Tribune was a French-English newspaper published from 1864-1870. The first black daily newspaper in the United States, it came to serve as the voice of the Creoles of Color (a term adopted after the Civil War and still used today to designate people descended from free people of color). Pinchback's Louisianan, in its various forms, enjoyed a longer run from 1870 to 1882 and was identified with English-speaking blacks.
Such ethnicity-based distinctions lessened somewhat in the face of Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth century. As a result of these discriminatory regulations, black political influence waned, but even then the descendants of free people of color, who could still remember the so-called "golden age" of the early nineteenth century, continued to challenge racial prejudices and segregation laws. The most famous case was that of Homer Plessy, who attempted to ride a New Orleans streetcar for whites only. The Comité des Citoyens, which was made up primarily of French speaking-free people of color, organized a legal suit over the incident that came to be known as the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson. The efforts ultimately backfired, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the "separate but equal" doctrine, a view it would adhere to until 1954. Creoles of Color continued to cooperate with other African Americans to fight injustice and also persuade progressive whites to support black institutions, such as Xavier and Dillard Universities and the Flint-Goodrich Hospital and Nursing School. In the twentieth century, attorney A. P. Tureaud filed the suit that led to the end of school segregation in New Orleans. His son, A. P. Tureaud, Jr., became the first black student to enroll at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Another descendant of free people of color, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial, became New Orleans's first black mayor in 1977.
We can also trace the legacy of Louisiana's free people of color in what may be the state's greatest contribution to the world—jazz. Combining European and African musical traditions, men such as Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (better known as Jelly Roll Morton), Alphonse Picou, Jimmy Palao, Manuel Perez, Freddie Keppard, and later Sidney Bechet created a distinctive sound that became synonymous with Louisiana and influenced countless musicians of all races. This quintessentially American art form, which for more than a century has embraced not only diverse peoples but also diverse ideas, is a fitting monument to free people of color. In jazz, as the late Dave Brubeck put it, "Kinship doesn't come from skin color. It's in your soul and your mind."
Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, LSU Libraries