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Terminology

Perhaps no term in Louisiana social, racial, and cultural history is more disputed than “Creole.”  Not all free people of color were Creole and not all Creoles were free people of color, but over time there has been some tendency to conflate the two, or to use the word to refer to people of mixed race, which many but not all free people of color were.

In determining how to describe and refer to individuals and families represented in the digital collection, the project participants have taken the following into consideration:

  • how terms were used in the historical context of the documents themselves
  • common use the general public is familiar with today
  • preferred language among descendants of free people of color
  • scholarly definitions and preferred terminology
  • library and archival standards and authority lists
  • sensitivity to how historical terminology can strike the modern ear. 

This page sets out some of the usage and working definitions we have employed in cataloging and describing these materials.

“Creole”

In the era of European colonization of the New World, creole (in French, criollo and crioulo in Spanish and Portuguese, respectively) referred to any person of “Old World” descent (European or African) who was born in the “New World.”  For example, a Creole slave was an enslaved person born in the New World, whatever his or her degree of African ancestry.  The early use of the term did not refer or was not part of a system of racial classification; rather, it was meant to identify people who were born and raised in the Americas but were not indigenous to the region.   In Louisiana, particularly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the influx of Anglo Americans and immigrants, the term took on additional significance to distinguish those born in colonial Louisiana of French, Spanish, and/or African extraction and their descendants from the new arrivals and their descendants.  Related to that distinction, “Creole” also came to be associated with the culture and language (typically French) of that distinct population, whose members were termed Creoles.  The term “Creole of color” also came into use to distinguish among white Creoles and Afro-Creoles, and in some usage became a synonym for “free person of color” or for their descendants, after emancipation.

For this project, we have used “Creole” to refer to those born in colonial Louisiana of French, Spanish, and/or African extraction and their descendants; we have not used it as a synonym for “free person of color”.  We have described individuals and families as Creole when clues in the documents, their family tree, or genealogical and historical sources indicated it would be appropriate.  It is important to note that not all free people of African descent were considered “Creole”.  There were also many English-speaking free blacks who either moved to Louisiana from elsewhere or had Anglo-Saxon heritage.  On a related note, in the 18th and 19th-centuries, “free person of color” was more properly used to denote those who were classified as mixed race, and the term “free Negro” was used to indicate a free black with no European ancestry.  For additional information on the term “Creole,” see the entry in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana.

Controlled Vocabularies

The standard controlled vocabulary or thesaurus for cataloging of the type used in this project is the widely accepted Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).  A common complaint about LCSH in many topical areas is the lack of specificity and nuance it allows, and that has certainly been the case here.  As a result, we have often used a combination of less-specific terms to triangulate on a fuller meaning, or to address how users who are not as familiar with the complexities of the history of free people of color may search.  So, for example, as a concession to how some users may search, we have used “African Americans,” knowing that many of the subjects of the documents would not have recognized that term as applicable to them.  The heading “Free blacks” has also been used; it is defined as “blacks who were legally free during the period roughly from 1619-1860 and who lived in countries where slavery existed as an institution.”

Historical Terminology for Racial Designations and Descriptive Terms

Documents of the 18th and 19th-centuries commonly included a designation that described a free person of color in terms of the amount of African ancestry they were believed to have.  Many of these words, such as “mulatto,” “quadroon,” or “griffe,” may strike the modern ear as outdated, overly reductive, or offensive.  However, for several reasons we have elected to include these descriptive terms in the notes about the people represented in the documents.  Sometimes we know little else about a person from the existing documentation, and such information helps to distinguish among persons with the same or similar names; indeed some initial feedback we have received indicates that having information like that provides clues for individuals researching their families.  That information can also be useful to scholars who study various aspects of the history and experiences of those who were classified as mixed-race.  Where it has been included, the designation or description is taken directly from the documents.  The terms were not placed in quotations out of consideration of how that would interfere with search functionality.

A glossary of these terms, which are taken from the documents, follows and is provided for the researchers’ reference, courtesy of Advisory Board member Kenneth Aslakson, PhD.1   It is important to keep in mind that assigning percentages of ancestry was far from an exact science.  The designations were often given on the basis of complexion or physical characteristics rather than proof of ancestry. 

  • Negro: In antebellum Louisiana, “negro” or “negress” described a person who did not have any European ancestry, as distinguished from a “person of color.”
  • Mulatto: Historically this term is meant to describe someone of mixed African and European ancestry.  In Louisiana, it is even more specific- describing someone who is believed to be of one-half African ancestry and one-half European ancestry.
  • Griffe: Refers to a person who is believed to be one-quarter European descent and three-quarters African descent.  Alternately, it could refer to someone of African and Native American ancestry.
  • Quadroon: Refers to a person who is thought to be of one-quarter African descent and three-quarters European descent. 
  • Octoroon: Refers to a person who is of one-eighth African descent and seven-eighths European descent. 

  1. See also Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press, 1995), 262; Sybil Klein, Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press, 2000), 59 n1; Stephanie Rose Bird, Light, Bright, and Damned Near White: Biracial and Triracial Culture in America (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 2009), 6.

 

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