Creoles of color

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The Creoles of color are a historic ethnic group of Creole people that developed in the former French and Spanish colonies of Louisiana (especially in the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, and Northwestern Florida in what is now the United States. French colonists in Louisiana first used the term "Creole" to refer to whites born in the colony, rather than in France. It was also used for enslaved people born in the colony.

Despite constant portrayal of Creoles as light skinned or mixed race, the original Black Creole is simply a Black American person who has developed a cosmopolitan heritage due to the overlap of cultures. Colorism is present in some portrayals of Creoles, though a large majority of Creoles are mono-racial Black Americans. The term "Creoles of color" was applied to mixed-race Creoles typically born from plaçage and the rape of Africans and Native Americans by the French and Spanish. In some cases, white fathers would free their concubines and children, forming a class of Gens de couleur libres (free people of color). The French and Spanish gave them more rights than enslaved people, due to their own colorism. Most of these Creoles of Color have since assimilated into Black Culture through a shared history of slavery in the United States, while some have chosen to remain a separate yet inclusive subsection of the African American ethnic group.[1]

Historical Context[edit]

Creole cartoonist George Herriman

The term Créole was first used by French colonists to distinguish themselves from foreign-born settlers, and later as distinct from Anglo-American settlers. Créole referred to people born in Louisiana whose ancestors were not born in the territory. Colonial documents show that the term Créole was used variously at different times to refer to white people, mixed-race people, and black people, both free-born and enslaved.[2]The "of color" is considered a necessary qualifier, as "Creole"(Créole) does not convey any racial connotation.

During French colonization, social order was divided into two distinct categories: (black) slave and whites. These distinctions were supported by laws that regulated interracial conduct within the colony. An example of such laws are the Louisiana Code Noir.[3] Though interracial relations were legally forbidden, or heavily restricted, they were not uncommon. Mixed-race Creoles of color became identified as a distinct ethnic group, Gens de couleur libres (free persons of color), and were granted their free-person status by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1810.[4] Some have suggested certain social markers of creole identity as being of Catholic faith, having a strong work ethic, being an avid fan of literature, and being fluent in French-- standard French, Creole and Cajun are all considered acceptable versions of the French language.[5] For many, being a descendant of the Gens de couleur libres is an identity marker specific to Creoles of color.[5]

Many Creoles of color were free-born, and their descendants often enjoyed many of the same privileges that whites did, including (but not limited to) property ownership, formal education, and service in the militia. During the antebellum period, their society was structured along class lines and they tended to marry within their group. While it was not illegal, it was a social taboo for Creoles of color to marry slaves and it was a rare occurrence. Some of the wealthier and prosperous Creoles of color owned slaves themselves. Other Creoles of color, such as Thomy Lafon, used their social position to support the abolitionist cause.

Another Creole of color, wealthy planter Francis E. Dumas, emancipated all of his slaves in 1863 and organized them into a company in the Second Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards, in which he served as an officer.[6]


Creoles of Color had been members of the militia for decades under both French and Spanish control of the colony of Louisiana. For example, around 80 free Creoles of Color were recruited into the militia that participated in the Battle of Baton Rouge in 1779.[7] 69 After the United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and acquired the large territory west of the Mississippi, the Creoles of color in New Orleans volunteered their services and pledged their loyalty to their new country. They also took an oath of loyalty to William C. C. Claiborne, the Louisiana Territorial Governor appointed by President Thomas Jefferson.[8]

Months after the colony became part of the United States, Claiborne's administration was faced with a dilemma previously unknown in the U.S.; integration in the military by incorporating entire units of previously established "colored" militia.[9] In a February 20, 1804 letter, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn wrote to Claiborne saying, "…it would be prudent not to increase the Corps, but to diminish, if it could be done without giving offense…" [10] A decade later, the militia of color that remained volunteered to take up arms when the British began landing troops on American soil outside of New Orleans in December 1814. This was the commencement of the Battle of New Orleans.[11]

After the Louisiana Purchase, many Creoles of color lost their favorable social status, despite their service to the militia and their social status prior to the U.S. takeover. The territory and New Orleans became the destination of many migrants from the United States, as well as new immigrants. Migrants from the South imposed their caste system. In this new caste system, all people with African ancestry or visible African features were classified as black, and therefore categorized as second class citizens, regardless of their education, property ownership, or previous status in French society. Former free Creoles of Color were relegated to the ranks of emancipated slaves.

Creole Marianne Celeste Dragon

A notable creole family was that of Andrea Dimitry. Dimitry was a Greek immigrant who married Marianne Céleste Dragon a woman of African and Greek ancestry around 1799. Their son creole author and educator Alexander Dimitry was the first person of color to represent the United States as Ambassador to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. He was also the first superintendent of schools in Louisiana. Andrea Dimitry's children were upper-class elite creole. They were mostly educated at Georgetown University. One of his daughters married into the English royal House of Stuart. Some of the creole children were prominent members of the Confederate Government during the American Civil War.[12][13][14]


With the advantage of having been better educated than the new freedmen, many Creoles of color were active in the struggle for civil rights and served in political office during Reconstruction, helping to bring freedmen into the political system.[15][16] During late Reconstruction, white Democrats regained political control of state legislatures across the former Confederate states by intimidation of blacks and other Republicans at the polls. Through the late nineteenth century, they worked to impose white supremacy under Jim Crow laws and customs. They disfranchised the majority of blacks, especially by creating barriers to voter registration through devices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, etc., stripping African Americans, including Creoles of color, of political power.

Creoles of color were among the African Americans who were limited when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, deciding that "separate but equal" accommodations were constitutional. It permitted states to impose Jim Crow rules on federal railways and later interstate buses.

On June 14, 2013 Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law Act 276, creating the "prestige" license plate stating "I'm Creole", in honor of the Creoles' contributions, culture, and heritage.[17]

Contribution to the arts[edit]


Creole jazz musician Sidney Bechet, a virtuoso on the soprano saxophone

Some Creoles of color trained as classical musicians in 19th-century Louisiana. These musicians would often study with those associated with the French Opera House; some traveled to Paris to complete their studies. Creole composers of that time are discussed in Music and Some Highly Musical People by James Monroe Trotter, and Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire by Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes.

Notable classical Creole musicians[edit]

Jazz musicians[edit]

Barney Bigard, noted jazz clarinetist long a part of Duke Ellington's orchestra

Creoles of color from the New Orleans area were active in defining the earliest days of jazz.[18][19] Some of the most notable names:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ December 15, Tyina Steptoe |; 2015 (2015-12-15). "When Louisiana Creoles Arrived in Texas, Were They Black or White? | Essay". Zócalo Public Square. Retrieved 2021-03-21.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Kein, Sybil. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color. Louisiana State University Press, 2009, p. 73. ISBN 9780807126011.
  3. ^ BlackPast (2007-07-28). "(1724) Louisiana's Code Noir •". Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  4. ^ Dubois, Sylvie; Melançon, Megan (2000). "Creole Is, Creole Ain't: Diachronic and Synchronic Attitudes toward Creole Identity in Southern Louisiana". Language in Society. 29 (2): 237–258. doi:10.1017/S0047404500002037. ISSN 0047-4045. JSTOR 4169003. S2CID 144287855.
  5. ^ a b DORMON, James H. (1992). "Louisiana's "Creoles of Color": Ethnicity, Marginality, and Identity". Social Science Quarterly. 73 (3): 615–626. ISSN 0038-4941. JSTOR 42863083.
  6. ^ Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans, Harvard University Press, 2009, pg. 162. ISBN 9780674023512.
  7. ^ Charles Gayarré, History of Louisiana: The Spanish Domination, William J. Widdleton, 1867, pp 126-132. [ISBN unspecified].
  8. ^ Carter, Clarence (1940). The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. IX, The Territory of Orleans. p. 174. [ISBN unspecified].
  9. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising, etc". Salon Publique, Pitot House, November 7, 2011. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  10. ^ Rowland, Dunbar (1917). Official Letter Books of W.C.C. Claiborne, 1801-1816. Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History. pp. Vol II, p. 54–55. [ISBN unspecified].
  11. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising-Governor on Trial: Claiborne in His Own Words". Salon Publique, Pitot House, November 7, 2011, Pp. 11-13. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  12. ^ "Louise Pecquet du Bellet" Some Prominent Virginia Families Vol. 4 Lynchburg, VA: J.P. Bell Company Inc. 1907: p. 188
  13. ^ Kendall, John Smith (1922). History of New Orleans Volume 3. Chicago And New York: The Lewis Publishing Company. p. 1104.
  14. ^ Steve Frangos (June 12, 2018). "First Greek Couple of North America: Andrea Dimitry and Marianne Celeste Dragon". Ethinkos Kirikas The National Herald. Retrieved April 17, 2021.
  15. ^ Kathe Managan, The Creole Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights Archived 2014-11-06 at the Wayback Machine,, Accessed November 22, 2013.
  16. ^ Adam Fairclough, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972, University of Georgia Press, 2008, pp. 1-21
  17. ^ "HB147".
  18. ^ Charles B. Hersch, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pg. 98-109. ISBN 9780226328690.
  19. ^ Scott DeVeaux, Gary Giddins, Jazz,, Accessed November 22, 2013

Further reading[edit]

  • Bruce, Clint, ed. and trans. (2020). Afro-Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana's Radical Civil War–Era Newspapers: A Bilingual Edition. Historic New Orleans Collection. ISBN 9780917860799.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Douglas, Nick (2013). Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 9781493522088.
  • Jacques Anderson, Beverly (2011). Cherished Memories: Snapshots of Life and Lessons from a 1950s New Orleans Creole Village. ISBN 9781462003198.
  • Malveaux, Vivian (2009). Living Creole and Speaking It Fluently. AuthorHouse. ISBN 9781467846486.
  • Kein, Sybil (2009). Creole: the history and legacy of Louisiana's free people of color. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807126011.
  • Jolivette, Andrew (2007). Louisiana Creoles: Cultural Recovery and Mixed-Race Native American Identity. Lexington Books. ISBN 9780739118962.
  • Martin, Munro; Britton, Celia (2012). American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 9781846317538.
  • Gehman, Mary (2009). The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction. Margaret Media, Inc. ISBN 9781508483670.
  • Clark, Emily (2013). The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9781469607528.
  • Dominguez, Virginia (1986). White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813511092.
  • Cossé Bell, Caryn (2004). Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807141526.
  • Anthony, Arthe A. (2012). Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer's View of the Early Twentieth Century. University Press of Florida. ISBN 9780813041872.

External links[edit]