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.