Rosa Mahier's Freedom: Identity and the Maintenance of Liberty in Antebellum Louisiana

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:50 PM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Johanna Lee Davis Smith, Tulane University
Rosa Mahier's Freedom:  Identity and the Maintenance of Liberty in Antebellum Louisiana

            Rosa Mahier had lived her whole life in Mulatto Bend, a little community located a short distance from Baton Rouge.  Born a slave in 1813 and legally freed in 1827, Rosa was a familiar member of a network of free people of color which had lived and worked within and throughout the larger white population of the area since the 1780s.  Most of the inhabitants – black as well as white, Rosa included – were descended from local families of longue durée, and the free people of color in the community carefully cultivated their identity in order to perpetuate the security of their free status.  Rosa Mahier had been legally free for twenty years when Fergus Mahier, the white nephew of the man who once owned her, took legal action in an attempt to re-enslave her and her freeborn children.

            Fergus Mahier did not ultimately prevail in his lawsuit, but his petition is as compelling for what he did not demand as for what he did.  Mahier did not attempt to re-enslave Rosa's two brothers or her grandmother, all of whom had been manumitted at the same time and in the same way as Rosa, nor did he include Rosa's mother Agnes, who also had been owned and freed by the Mahier family.  Therefore, the brief record of the case offers the opportunity to weigh the roles of identity, status, gender, wealth, and power as factors in the successful maintenance of liberty among free people of color in antebellum Louisiana.  Mahier's motivation for the suit and the individual characteristics of the people involved present a trenchant illustration of the hair's breadth that separated slavery and freedom, as well as the continuous efforts of aspiring slaveowners to breach that line.