Free people of color

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Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c.1764-1796.

The term free people of color (French: gens de couleur libres), in the context of the history of slavery in the Americas, at first specifically referred to persons of partial African and European descent who were not enslaved. The term was especially used in the French colonies, including La Louisiane and settlements on Caribbean islands, such as Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. Freed African slaves were included in the term affranchis, but historically they were considered distinct from the free people of color. In these territories and major cities, particularly New Orleans, and those cities held by the Spanish, a substantial third class of primarily mixed-race, free people developed. These colonial societies classified mixed-race people in a variety of ways, generally related to appearance and to the proportion of African ancestry. Racial classifications were numerous in Latin America.

In the Thirteen Colonies settled by the British, and later in the United States, the term free Negro was often used to cover the same class of people - those who were legally free and identifiably of ethnic African descent. It included persons of mixed race as well as freed African slaves.

History[edit]

Free woman of color with quadroon daughter. Late 18th-century collage painting, New Orleans.

Free people of color played an important role in the history of New Orleans and the southern area of La Louisiane, both when the area was controlled by the French and Spanish, and after acquisition by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. They were also important in forming an educated class of color in French colonies of the Caribbean islands.

When French settlers and traders first arrived in these colonies, the men frequently took Native American women as their concubines or common-law wives; and when African slaves were imported to the colony, they would also take African women. As the Louisiana colony grew and more white women arrived from France and Germany, some French men or ethnic French Creoles still took mixed-race women as mistresses or placées before they officially married. In the period of French and Spanish rule, men tended to marry later after becoming financially established. The free people of color developed formal arrangements for placées, which the young women's mothers negotiated, often to include a kind of dowry or property transfer to the young women, freedom for them and their children, and education for the children. The French Creole men often paid for education of their "natural" (illegitimate) mixed-race children from these relationships, especially if they were sons, generally sending them to France to be educated.

Free people of color developed as a separate class between the colonial French and Spanish and the enslaved black African workers. They often achieved education and some measure of wealth; they spoke French and practiced Catholicism, although they also developed a syncretic Christianity. At one time the center of their residential community in New Orleans was the French Quarter. Many were artisans who owned property and their own businesses. They formed a social category distinct from both whites and slaves, and maintained their own society into the period after United States annexation.[1]

Free people of color were also an important part of the history of the Caribbean during the period of slavery and afterward. Initially descendants of French men and African slaves, and then often marrying within their own mixed-race community, some achieved wealth and power, particularly in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which achieved independence in 1804 as the Republic of Haiti. In Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other French Caribbean colonies before slavery was abolished, the free people of color were known as gens de couleur libres, and affranchis. Comparable groups became an important part of the populations of British Jamaica, the Spanish Captaincy General of Santo Domingo, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Portuguese Brazil.

Some historians suggest that free people of color made New Orleans the cradle of the civil rights movement in the United States, due to the earliest efforts of Louisiana Creoles to integrate the military en masse.[2] W.C.C. Claiborne, appointed by Thomas Jefferson as governor of the Territory of Orleans, formally accepted delivery of the French colony on 20 December 1803. Free men of color had been members of the militia for decades during both Spanish and French rule of the colony of Louisiana. They volunteered their services and pledged their loyalty to Claiborne and to their newly adopted country.[3] In early 1804, the new U.S. administration in New Orleans under Governor Claiborne was faced with a dilemma previously unknown in the United States, the integration of the military by incorporating entire units of established "colored" militia.[4] See, e.g., the 20 February 1804 letter to Claiborne from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, which states that "it would be prudent not to increase the Corps, but to diminish, if it could be done without giving offense." [5]

A decade later, the militia of free men of color volunteered to defend their city and country at the Battle of New Orleans, when the British began landing troops on American soil outside the city in December 1814.[6]

Definition[edit]

Free West Indian Dominicans, c. 1770

Most free people of color were descendants of relationships between white men - slaveowners, their younger sons before marriage, overseers, and others - and African or African-American women, sometimes enslaved and sometimes free. Throughout the slave societies of the Americas, some white males took advantage of the power relationships to use female slaves sexually; sometimes they had extended relationships of concubinage. South Carolina diarist Mary Chesnut wrote in the mid-19th century that "like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children ..."[7] In some places, especially in Caribbean and South American slave societies, the European father might acknowledge the relationship and his children. Some were common-law marriages of affection. Slaveholders were more likely to free their mixed-race children of these relationships than they were to free other slaves. They also sometimes freed the enslaved women who were their concubines.

Many slave societies allowed masters to free their slaves. As the population of color became larger and more threatening to the white ruling class, governments put increasing restrictions on manumissions. These usually included taxes, requirements that some socially useful reason be cited for manumission, and a requirement that a newly freed person demonstrate a means of independent support. Masters might free their slaves for a variety of reasons, but the most common was family relationship between master and slave.

Slaves also achieved their freedom by purchasing it, whether at market or reduced value. Some masters hired out their slaves and allowed them to keep a portion of their earnings. From money saved, they could buy freedom. In other cases, relatives who were already free purchased the freedom of another. Sometimes masters, or the government, would free slaves without payment as a reward for some notable service; a slave who revealed slave conspiracies for uprisings was sometimes rewarded with freedom.

Technically a maroon was also a free person of color. This term described slaves who had escaped and lived in areas outside settlements. Because maroons lived outside slave society, scholars regard them as quite different in character from free people of color, who made their way legally within societies.

Many people who lived as free within the slave society did not have formal liberty papers. In some cases these were runaways, who hid in the towns among free people of color and tried to maintain a low profile. In other cases they were "living as free" with the permission of their master, sometimes in return for payment of rent or a share of money they earned by trades. The master never made their freedom official. Like the maroons, these people were always at risk of losing their freedom.

Economic effects[edit]

Free people of color filled an important niche in the economy of slave societies. In most places, they worked as artisans and small retail merchants in the towns. In many places, especially in British-influenced colonies such as the United States, there were restrictions on people of color owning slaves and agricultural land. But, many free blacks lived in the countryside and some became major slaveholders. Many stayed on or near the plantations where they or their ancestors had been slaves, and where they had extended family. Masters often used free blacks as plantation managers or overseers, especially if the master had a family relationship with the mixed-race man.[8]

Free people of color were often hired by the government as rural police, to hunt down runaway slaves and keep order among the slave population. From the view of the white master class in places such as Haiti or Jamaica, this was a critical function in a society in which the enslaved people on large plantations vastly outnumbered whites.[9]

In places where law or social custom permitted it, some free people of color managed to acquire good agricultural land and slaves, and become planters themselves. Free blacks owned plantations in almost all the slave societies of the Americas. In the United States, free people of color may have owned the most property in Louisiana, which had developed a distinct creole or mixed-race class. A man who had a relationship with a woman of color sometimes also arranged for a transfer of wealth to her and their children, whether through deed of land and property to the mother and/or children under the system of plaçage, by arranging for an apprenticeship to a trade for their mixed-race children, which provided them a better opportunity to make a skilled living, or by educating sons in France and easing their way into the military. In St. Domingue/Haiti by the late colonial period, gens de couleur owned about one-third of the land and about one-quarter of the slaves.[10]

Post-slavery[edit]

When the end of slavery came, the distinction between former free coloreds and former slaves persisted in some societies. Because of advantages in education and experience, free people of color often provided much of the leadership for the newly freed persons, as in Haiti where Toussaint Louverture, the national leader, and several of his top generals were former free men of color.

Similarly, in the United States, many of the African Americans elected as state and local officials during Reconstruction in the South had been free in the South before the Civil War.[11] Many educated blacks whose families had long been free in the North went to the South to work and help the freedmen. Some were elected to office.

Today[edit]

Main articles: Louisiana Creole and Cajun

Many descendants of the gens de couleur, or free people of color, of the Louisiana area celebrate their culture and heritage through a New Orleans-based Louisiana Creole Research Association (LA Créole).[12] The term "Créole" is not synonymous with "free people of color" or gens de couleur libre, but many members of LA Créole have traced their genealogies through those lines. Today, the multiracial descendants of the French colonists, Africans, and other ethnicities are widely known as Louisiana Creoles. Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal signed Act 276 on 14 June 2013, creating the "prestige" license plate, "I'm Creole," honoring Louisiana Creoles' contributions and heritage.[13]

The terms "Créole" and "Cajun" have sometimes been confused in Louisiana, as members of each group generally had ancestors who were French-speaking; but the terms are not synonymous. The Cajuns are descendants of French colonists from Acadia who were resettled to Louisiana in the 18th century, generally outside the New Orleans area. Generations later, some of their culture relates to that of the Louisiana Creoles, but they are distinct. Members of each group may be multi-ethnic.

Notable free people of color[edit]

  • Chevalier de Saint-Georges, composer and swordsman in late 18th-century France
  • Julien Raimond, leader from Saint-Domingue of the campaign in France and the colony to extend full citizenship to free men of color following the French Revolution
  • Frederick Douglass, American slave who escaped to the North, achieved education and led abolition movement in the US
  • John Sweat Rock, born free in New Jersey, 19th-century teacher, doctor, lawyer, abolitionist, first black admitted to the US Supreme Court Bar
  • James Forten, born free in Philadelphia, became a wealthy businessman (sailmaker) and strong abolitionist
  • Charles Henry Langston, abolitionist and activist in Ohio and Kansas
  • John Mercer Langston, abolitionist, politician and activist in Ohio, Washington, DC; and Virginia, first dean of Howard University Law Department, first president of Virginia State Univ., first black elected to US Congress from Virginia (1888)
  • Robert Purvis, born free in Charleston, became active abolitionist in Philadelphia, supported the Underground Railroad and used inherited wealth to create services for African Americans
  • Marie Laveau, early 19th century Voodoo practitioner
  • Edmond Dédé, composer
  • Rose Nicaud, born a slave, was the first coffee vendor in New Orleans; earned enough from her portable coffee stand to buy her freedom.
  • John Chavis, born free c. 1762 in North Carolina, a teacher and preacher among both white and free persons on color until the mid-19th century, when laws restricted free people of color
  • Thomas Day, born free c. 1801 in Virginia. Famous furniture maker/craftsman in Caswell County, North Carolina
  • William Ellison, born a slave c. 1790, wealthy businessman
  • Charles W. Chesnutt, born free in Cleveland, author, essayist, political activist, business owner and lawyer
  • Solomon Northup, born c. 1808 in New York, kidnapped and enslaved in 1841. After his escape he wrote a memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853), and worked for abolition.
  • Norbert Rillieux, engineer and inventor
  • (David H Hunt/Pappynson/1942/Melungeon ancestry

See also[edit]

David H Hunt/Papi/1942/Melungeon ancestry

References[edit]

  1. ^ "French Speaking ‘Hommes de Couleur Libre’ Left Indelible Mark on the Culture and Development of the French Quarter", FrenchQuarter.com. Retrieved 10 May 2008.
  2. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "Louisiana's Free People of Color-Digitization Grant-letter in support". Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  3. ^ Carter, Clarence (1940). The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. IX, The Territory of Orleans. p. 174. 
  4. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising, etc". Salon Publique, Pitot House, 7 November 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Rowland, Dunbar (1917). Official Letter Books of W.C.C. Claiborne, 1801-1816. Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History. pp. Vol II, pp. 54–5. 
  6. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising-Governor on Trial: Claiborne in His Own Words". Salon Publique, Pitot House, 7 November 2011, pp. 11-13. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  7. ^ Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut and C. Vann Woodward. 1981. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press)
  8. ^ Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (The New Press, 1974 and 2007)
  9. ^ King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, Chapter 4
  10. ^ King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, chapter 6.
  11. ^ Heritage of Freedom: Free People of Color in the Americas, 1492-1900. New York: Facts on File, 2010
  12. ^ http://lacreole.org/
  13. ^ [1] Louisiana State Government website

Further reading[edit]

  • Sister Dorothea Olga McCants, translation of Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire
  • Mary Gehman, The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction (New Orleans, 1994)
  • John Blassingame, Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (Chicago, 1973)
  • New Orleans Architecture: The Creole Faubourgs (Gretna, 1984), Sally Kittredge Evans

"The Feast of All Saints" is a fascinating, thoroughly researched novel focusing on the gens de couleur libres in New Orleans. The author is Anne Rice, the famous novelist of New Orleans. The novel was adapted into a TV mini-series "The Feast of All Saints" available on video and DVD. For details on the movie, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0255730/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1.

External links[edit]