Crossing Racial and Geographical Boundaries: Slaveholding Free Women of Color and Networking in New Orleans, 1803–60

Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sheraton Ballroom II (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Anne Ulentin, Louisiana State University
In The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), prize-winning historian Suzanne Lebsock showed how black and white women in a small Southern town built self-sustaining family-oriented communities, complete with religious and informal labor networks.  Lebsock’s analysis provides a framework for a much broader argument about individuals, communities, and networks in the Slave South.  In my dissertation, I examine a specific group of individuals in antebellum New Orleans, slaveholding free women of color, focusing on the intricate system of professional and personal connections they built in the city. 

In a large urban center such as New Orleans, free women of color built communities tied together by a shared heritage, kinship, education, and above all economic opportunities.  These resourceful women traded slaves of all ages, and amassed estates which were sizable by any standard.  In my research in the historical archives in New Orleans, I have used local public records to understand how this came to be: How did free women of color acquire and keep their property?  Were there clear slaveholding patterns among their community? What exactly were these social and professional networks? 

Notarial deeds, vital records, property books, and court records reveal that most of free women of color conducted slave-owning businesses, establishing thriving social and financial networks throughout the city. These were dense networks of relationships beyond those of the nuclear family or neighborhood.  Bringing individuals of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds together, these networks blurred the color line.  Moreover, not only did free women of color engage in the business of slavery with whites and free persons of color from New Orleans, but also with individuals from Cuba, Jamaica, and Saint Domingue.  Thus, racially and ethnically diverse communities as well as geographically spread-out communities were tied together by the business of slavery, introducing a new perspective into the debate on race, gender, and ethnicity in the Americas in the nineteenth century.

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