or in New OrleansShattered dreams. Broken promises. They were hung between freedom and slavery. They struggled to find a different kind of freedom and independency where justice has yet to exist and racism wasn’t just a part of life, but what life was all about.
New Orleans is a city in southern Louisiana, located on the Mississippi River. Most of the city is situated on the east bank, between the river and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Because it was built on a great turn of the river, it is known as the Crescent City.
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, and named for the regent of France, Philippe II, duc d’Orleans. It remained a French colony until 1763, when it was surrendered to the Spanish. In 1800, Spain ceded it back to France; in 1803, New Orleans, along with the entire Louisiana Purchase, was sold by Napoleon I to the United States.
Like the early American settlements along Massachusetts Bay and Chesapeake Bay, New Orleans served as a distinctive cultural gateway to North America, where people from Europe and Africa initially intertwined their lives and customs with those of the native inhabitants of the New World. The resulting way of life differed dramatically from the culture than was spawned in the English colonies of North America. New Orleans is a place where Africans, Indians and European settlers shared their cultures and blended together. Encouraged by the French government, this strategy for producing a tough, durable culture in a difficult place, marked New Orleans as different and special and it still continues to distinguish the city today.
African Americans make up about half of the city of New Orleans population to date. How did this come about? Well, during the eighteenth century, Africans came to the city directly from West Africa. The majority passed neither through the West Indies nor South America, so they developed complicated relations with both the Indian and Europeans.
The Spanish rulers (1765-1802) reached out to the black population for support against the French settlers; in doing so, they allowed many to buy their own freedom. These free black settlers along with Creole slaves formed the earliest black urban settlement in North America.
A Creole is a person born in the West Indies or Spanish America but of European, usually Spanish, ancestry. And it also means a person descended from Africans and European. Those were the “Free People of Color”. They were highly skilled craftsmen, business people, educators, writers, planters, and musicians. Many free women of color were highly skilled seamstresses, hairdressers, and cooks while some owned property and kept boarding houses. Some of them were planters before and after the Civil War and owned slaves. Although shocking and incomprehensible to many people today, the fact that some free people of color owned slaves must come to light.
While financial prosperity was common, discrimination was also. Although business was performed between whites and Creoles of color in public houses, they did not socialize outside of business arrangements. Striking of a white person by a free person of color could mean arrest. Free people of color could not vote, no matter how white they may have looked. Women by law were forced to cover their hair with a scarf in the early part of the 19the century. Being clever, they soon sported sophisticated headgear complete with feather and jewels. Opera and theatre going was a favorite pastime of both white and the gens de couleur, although they were not seated together.
American immigrants found them to be quite exotic, for the black Creoles were Catholic, French or Creole speakers, and accustomed to an entirely different lifestyle.
Placage was an arrangement between a free woman of color and a white “protector”. As it was illegal for a woman of color to marry a white man. The arrangements benefited both parties involved. French and Spanish fathers treated their Creole children equitable, often sending them to Europe for education and making them legal heirs.
Creole Society and Customs
The people of color are a unique group of people that have contributed to the most European city in America, New Orleans. Their lifestyle inclined towards those of freed slaves; they were allowed to own businesses, farms, houses and even slaves of their own.
Mansions in and near Natchez are representative of Creole architecture. They had large spacious rooms with high vaulted ceilings, arched doorways, overhead fanlights, and wrought-iron railings. There were tall white columns, broad galleries, and large entrances on the outside of the houses. In the back of the most mansions was the kitchen and further back were the slave quarters. The mansion’s grounds were gorgeous with magnificent old trees and Spanish moss, tons of flowers, and gracious lawns. The inside of the mansions reflected the plantation owner’s wealth; hand-carved rosewood furniture, mantles, stairs, etc.; winding mahogany staircases, decorated ceilings, etc.
The Creoles loved to dance and they attended many balls. Society balls were usually sponsored by a group of bachelors and young married men.
Other entertainments included attending the opera or the theatre, vaudeville shows, concerts and parades. The men liked to gamble, play billiards, backgammon, checkers, dominoes, or attend cockfights, horse races, dogfights, and bullfights.
Creole customs can be divided into two kinds: religious and non-religious. Religious customs focus on holidays: All Saints Day, Mardi Gras and Easter, for example. On All Saints Day Creoles bring flowers made of white, black, or purple tissue paper to place on graves in the cemetery. The week before this holiday shops display crowns and crosses with black beads and immortelles, which might be pictures of saints.
Loosely interpreted, it means, “Fat Tuesday”. Mardi Gras is celebrated on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent. Lent is the season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations during the forty days and seven Sundays before Easter Sunday.
The custom of masking on Mardi Gras was brought from France by the early settlers. During the period when Louisiana was a French, and later a Spanish province, the maskers went from house to house, but there was no regular street parade until after the Americans came into the State. The Americans thought Mardi Gras might become a business enterprise, and be made 80 attractive as to draw visitors to New Orleans. Early Tuesday morning the merry children, noisy with tinkling bells and dressed in masks and gay dominoes, come out of their houses and visit from door to door in their neighborhood. Later in the day there is a street parade, and another one at night. The Mardi Gras gayeties end with the most brilliant ball of the season.
In conclusion I would like to repeat that from the earliest days of New Orleans history, free persons of color have coexisted with those of European extraction. They didn’t have to get along fine, but that was just a way of life, which many, had to either accept or fight against. The free people of color, although free, did not have all of the rights of their white counterparts.
As Charles E. O’Neill, in Our People and Our History, defined it “They shared neither the privileges of the master class nor the degradation of the slave. They stood between — or rather apart — sharing the cultivated tastes of the upper caste and the painful humiliation attached to the race of the enslaved”.
Our People and Our History by Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes and Dorothea Olga McCants.
Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization by Arnold R. Hirsch Joseph Logsdon.