Creoles of color

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The Creoles of color are a historic ethnic group of Creole people in Louisiana and southern Mississippi and Alabama and Northwest, FL especially in the city of New Orleans.


Creole cartoonist George Herriman

Mixed-race Creoles of color became identified as a distinct ethnic group, Gens de couleur libres (free persons of color), prior to the 19th century. During Louisiana’s colonial period, Créole referred to people born in Louisiana who had ancestors from elsewhere; i.e., all natives other than Native Americans. First used by French colonists to distinguish themselves from foreign-born settlers, and later as distinct from Anglo-American settlers, colonial documents show the term "Créole" was used variously at different times to refer to white people, mixed-race people, and black people, including slaves.[1]

Creoles of color were free persons of color, and their descendants often enjoyed many of the privileges of whites, including property ownership and formal education. During the antebellum period, their society was structured along class lines. While it was not illegal, it was a social taboo for Creoles of color to marry slaves and was rarely done. Some of the most prosperous Creoles of color owned slaves themselves. Other Creoles of color such as Thomy Lafon used their position to support the abolitionist cause. Another Creole of color, Francis E. Dumas, emancipated all of his slaves and organized them into a company in the Second Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards.[2]

Some historians suggest that New Orleans was the cradle of the civil rights movement in the United States, due to the earliest efforts of Creoles to integrate the military en masse.[3] Free men of color had been members of the militia for decades under both Spanish and French control of the colony of Louisiana. They volunteered their services and pledged their loyalty to their newly adopted country and its Territorial Governor appointed by Thomas Jefferson, W.C.C. Claiborne, when the French colony of Orleans was formally accepted by the United States on December 20, 1803.[4]

Just months later the Claiborne's administration was faced with a dilemma previously unknown in the U.S., integrating the military by incorporating entire units of previously established "colored" militia.[5] In a February 20, 1804, letter Secretary of War Henry Dearborn wrote Clairborne that "it would be prudent not to increase the Corps, but to diminish, if it could be done without giving offense." [6] A decade later the militia of color that remained volunteered to take up arms when the British began landing troops on American soil outside New Orleans in December 1814, commencing the Battle of New Orleans.[7]

In spite of this and their status prior to U.S. takeover, from the Louisiana Purchase on many Creoles of color lost ground. America's southern society's caste system had classified people with any visible African ancestry as black and second class. Former free people of color were relegated to the ranks of emancipated slaves. With their advantage of having been better educated than the new freedmen, many Creoles of color were active in the struggle for civil rights.[8][9] During Reconstruction in the aftermath the American Civil War, white Democrats regained political power across the former Confederate states, and by the late nineteenth century and began to re-impose white supremacy. To achieve this, they established legal racial segregation under a Jim Crow system and disfranchised most blacks through voter registration and electoral rules, often part of new state constitutions.

Creoles of color suffered a major reversal when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, ruling that "separate but equal" accommodations were constitutional.

A century and more later social change had reversed much of its two century eclipse, to the point where Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law on June 14, 2013, Act 276, creating the "prestige" license plate, "I'm Creole," honoring Louisiana's Creole contributions and heritage.[10]

Contribution to the arts[edit]


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

Some Creoles of color trained as classical musicians in nineteenth-century Louisiana. They would often study with players associated with the French Opera House, and 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

New Orleans-area Creoles of Color were active in defining the earliest days of jazz.[11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kein, Sybil. "Creole: the history and legacy of Louisiana's free people of color". Louisiana State University Press, 2009, p. 73.
  2. ^ Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans, Harvard University Press, 2009, pg. 162
  3. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "Louisiana's Free People of Color-Digitization Grant-letter in support". Retrieved June 7, 2013. 
  4. ^ Carter, Clarence (1940). The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. IX, The Territory of Orleans. p. 174. 
  5. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising, etc". Salon Publique, Pitot House, November 7, 2011. Retrieved June 7, 2013. 
  6. ^ Rowland, Dunbar (1917). Official Letter Books of W.C.C. Claiborne, 1801-1816. Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History. pp. Vol II, p. 54–55. 
  7. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising-Governor on Trial: Claiborne in His Own Words". Salon Publique, Pitot House, November 7, 2011, p. 11-13. Retrieved June 7, 2013. 
  8. ^ Kathe Managan, The Creole Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights,, Accessed November 22, 2013.
  9. ^ Adam Fairclough, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972, University of Georgia Press, 2008, pp. 1-21
  10. ^
  11. ^ Charles B. Hersch, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pg. 98-109
  12. ^ Scott DeVeaux, Gary Giddins, Jazz,, Accessed November 22, 2013

Further reading[edit]

  • Douglas, Nick (2013). Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 
  • Jacques Anderson, Beverly (2011). Cherished Memories: Snapshots of Life and Lessons from a 1950s New Orleans Creole Village. 
  • Malveaux, Vivian (2009). Living Creole and Speaking It Fluently. AuthorHouse. 
  • Kein, Sybil (2009). Creole: the history and legacy of Louisiana's free people of color. Louisiana State University Press. 
  • Jolivette, Andrew (2007). Louisiana Creoles: Cultural Recovery and Mixed-Race Native American Identity. Lexington Books. 
  • Thompson, Shirley Elizabeth (2009). Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans. Harvard University Press. 
  • Martin, Munro; Britton, Celia (2012). American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South. Liverpool University Press. 
  • Gehman, Mary (2009). The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction. Margaret Media, Inc. 
  • 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. 
  • Dominguez, Virginia (1986). White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. Rutgers University Press. 
  • Cossé Bell, Caryn (2004). Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868. Louisiana State University Press. 
  • Anthony, Arthe A. (2012). Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer's View of the Early Twentieth Century. University Press of Florida. 

External links[edit]