Creoles of Color and Constructions of Race in Jim-Crow Houston

Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM
Imperial Ballroom A (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Tyina Steptoe, University of Arizona
In the decade following World War I, the Southern Pacific Railroad began recruiting men of color from rural southwestern Louisiana to work in the city of Houston. Enticed by the prospect of urban wage labor, approximately 500 families moved to Houston and established a community called “Frenchtown” in 1922. The neighborhood continued to grow after another wave of migrants relocated to the city after the Mississippi Flood of 1927. Predominantly Catholic and French speaking, the people of Frenchtown identified as “Creoles of color.” They were descendants of the gens de couleur libre – free people of color in pre-Civil War Louisiana with French and West African ancestry. During the Jim Crow era, Creoles of color were black by law; however, they insisted that they were neither black nor white. Their activities at the local level reveal a racial subjectivity that challenged the black/white binary imposed by segregation laws.

While most of the scholarship on Creoles of color focuses on Louisiana, this paper examines how Creole migrants affected local racial dynamics when they relocated to different states in the twentieth century. For example, some Houston Creoles practiced “discontinuous passing” to temporarily obtain the privileges of whiteness in segregated spaces. Yet they asserted their mixed-race subjectivity when they returned home to Frenchtown. These actions incensed black activists who thought the phenomenon of passing impeded racial progress. Furthermore, some black Houstonians charged that “colorism” affected relations between the Texans and Louisianans. Creoles of color did not remain isolated from black Texans, though. Exchanges between the groups inspired unique forms of cultural hybridity, like the zydeco music that emerged in the 1940s. Creoles’ relationships to their African American neighbors, and in some cases, the growing population of ethnic Mexicans, demonstrate the complexities of race in migration cities where different groups made contact.

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