Writing and Rewriting a Past: Lost Histories of Free People of Color in New Orleans

AHA Session 4
Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Preservation Hall, Studio 2 (New Orleans Marriott)
Jean-Michel Hebrard, University of Michigan
New Orleans and the Wider World
Martha S. Jones, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor

Session Abstract

Free people of color and their descendants have been a difficult population for historians to explain. Those who lived in New Orleans have been especially challenging because of their cultural, social, and ethnic roots in a French and Spanish colony, which became part of the U.S. Deep South, combined with their close ties to France and the Caribbean. Yet New Orleans, as a settlement and then a city, was fundamental to their sense of identity within colonial and post-colonial society. This panel calls for a reexamination of this population, from the colonial period through the early decades of the twentieth century.  Each scholar recognizes the importance of geography and ethnicity to the lived experiences of gens de couleur libre and their descendants, and each of them digs into the archives to tell a new story.  Focusing on the colonial period, Cécile Vidal proposes a new chronology within the history of the city’s free colored population.  In so doing, she re-periodizes the racialization of colonial society in Louisiana—that is, the moment when race became more important than class in the view of the state—by challenging the notion that the Spanish were the first to organize a free colored militia in Louisiana when they took possession in 1769. She finds instead that the French organized such a militia during the Seven Years War.  Vidal’s research emphasizes the strategic importance of the free colored population within the French colony and offers a new narrative about the relationship between free men of color and the colonial state.  Emily Clark takes a closer look at the practice commonly known as plaçage (informal sexual agreements between white men and free women of color in exchange for material support), which has so often been associated with New Orleans’s free people of color, and troubles the notion that free colored populations throughout the Caribbean were always in solidarity.  She finds that after the influx of Haitian refugees into New Orleans in 1809 (doubling the population of free people of color) the émigres and the local Creole population did not become one integrated group.  Rather, baptismal and sacramental records reveal that while Haitian women did enter into non-marital partnerships with white men——Orleanians of color continued to marry amongst themselves. Finally, Mary Niall Mitchell traces the descendants of the city’s free colored population and their efforts to record their antebellum history in the 1920s.  One institution, in particular—the Couvent School for free children of color, opened in 1848—became the foundation for their histories of intellectual and social achievement.  In the 1920s, the school continued to anchor Creoles of color in the face of Jim Crow laws and the influx of new immigrant populations to the downtown section of New Orleans. As an institution and a physical presence in a neighborhood once dominated by French-speaking Creoles, the Couvent School offered a means for members of a “vanishing” population to tell their own stories about the past, and preserve their identity as a people.

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