Free People of Color
Free people of color constituted a diverse segment of Louisiana’s population and included people that were born free or enslaved, were of African or mixed racial ancestry, and were French- or English-speaking
Free people of color formed a distinctive segment of Louisiana’s population from the French colonial period through the Civil War. By the mid-nineteenth century, the state had the largest number of free Black people in the Deep South as well as some of the wealthiest. The majority of free people of color resided in New Orleans and spoke French as their first language. French-speaking free people of color (gens de couleur libres in French) also lived in rural areas, especially in St. Landry, Natchitoches, Pointe Coupee, and St. Martin Parishes. By the Civil War free Louisianans of color had developed thriving and visible communities that included planters, poets, artisans, musicians, teachers, farmers, entrepreneurs, landlords, retailers, clerks, and nuns.
Within Louisiana’s slave society, free Black people inhabited a middle stratum between enslaved people of African descent and free white people. Their freedom was accompanied by a set of privileges denied to enslaved people, including property ownership, education, freedom of movement, and use of the legal system. Yet, white lawmakers denied free people of color political participation and subjected them to legal restrictions and discriminatory treatment based on their race. Laws governing the rights and behaviors of free people of color varied over time, becoming more restrictive during the nineteenth century after Louisiana became part of the United States.
The term “free person of color” was a legal category indicating a racialized status. The individuals to whom this label applied were diverse. Free people of color in Louisiana could be African-born or born in the Americas. They could be formerly enslaved or born free. They may have been of only African ancestry or of mixed racial ancestry—African, European, and/or Native American. Most of Louisiana’s free people of color were French-speaking, and many of them referred to themselves as Creoles. A smaller proportion of free people of color spoke English as their first language; they were often referred to as “Americans” and likely came to Louisiana from another state.
French Colonial Period: 1718–1769
Louisiana’s free people of color population originated in the colonial era. The earliest record of a free Black person in New Orleans dates from 1722, three years after the first ship arrived with enslaved Africans to French Louisiana. The Code Noir, a set of laws enacted in 1685 for the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and adapted to Louisiana in 1724, recognized the category “free person of color.” Louisiana’s version included measures meant to discourage the development of a large free Black population. Manumission—when an enslaver legally freed an enslaved person—required approval from the Superior Council, Louisiana’s judicial body. The code prohibited marriages and sexual relationships between white and Black people. Records from the period indicate, however, that such relationships did occur and that colonial authorities had difficulty enforcing this law. In addition free people of color could be re-enslaved if found assisting enslaved individuals who freed themselves by running away.
Despite Code Noir restrictions, a slow growth in the numbers of free people of color in New Orleans and the surrounding area resulted from manumissions, natural increase, and immigration. Some of the earliest free Black inhabitants came to Louisiana as free people. Marie Baude, for example, traveled to New Orleans from Senegal in 1728 to reunite with her French husband. Yet, most free people of color during the French colonial period experienced enslavement. Louis Connard, his wife Catherine, and their four children were owned by Jacques Coustilhas, who manumitted the enslaved family in his will. Following the death of Coustilhas, Connard successfully petitioned Governor Bienville to approve his family’s freedom in 1739.
Manumission records indicate that enslaved women and children gained their freedom more often than enslaved men. In some cases, a relationship existed between the male enslaver and the manumitted woman and children. French men frequently had coercive sexual contact with enslaved women. Sexual intimacy could develop into long- or short-term relationships, and sometimes the enslaver freed his sexual partner and/or their children. Because the status of children followed that of their mother, the free Black population grew as enslaved women gained their freedom and had children.
Some enslaved men received their freedom for performing necessary services for the government. Louis Congo negotiated for his freedom in exchange for serving as the colony’s executioner. François Tiocou gained freedom for militia service with the French in retaliation for the 1729 Natchez Revolt.
Spanish Colonial Period: 1769–1803
The number of free people of color increased significantly in Spanish Louisiana. Scholar Shannon Dawdy estimates that by the end of the French period there were 400 to 800 free people of color in New Orleans and the surrounding area. Forty years later this number reached more than fifteen hundred. Frontier regions like Attakapas, Opelousas, and Natchitoches also saw small, growing numbers of free Black people during the Spanish period.
This dramatic growth was due to Spanish policies that encouraged the development of a free Black population in the colony. Compared to the French, the Spanish made it easier for enslavers to manumit an enslaved person. No longer requiring government approval, freedom could be granted through notary acts or wills. Some enslavers voluntarily manumitted their bondspeople without any compensation. Others required additional service before freedom was fully granted.
Under Spanish law, enslaved people had the right to initiate their own manumissions through a self-purchase process known as coartación. The Spanish, unlike the French, also allowed enslaved men and women to own personal property, including money made from selling goods or services performed on their own time. Working as a cooper, Noel Carriere purchased his freedom in 1771. Margarita Trudeau, who retailed goods, bought her son’s freedom in 1782.
Through hard work and determination, enslaved people used these laws to their advantage. Between 1771 and 1803, 1,921 men, women, and children gained their freedom through voluntary manumissions and self-purchase in New Orleans. Coartación accounted for most of these emancipations.
More women than men gained their freedom through all manumission methods. In New Orleans free women of color outnumbered free men of color throughout the colonial era and into the nineteenth century. This demographic situation contributed to the regular occurrence of relationships between white men and women of African descent. In some cases, these relationships lasted years and functioned much like marriages.
Partnerships between men and women of color were also common. In the Spanish period increasing numbers of free Black partners began to marry in the Catholic Church, a trend that was widespread by 1830. In 1778 Marianne Thomas, the daughter and granddaughter of free people of color, married Noel Carriere, a captain in the free Black militia. The free status of the couple’s ten children was built on three generations of freedom in Louisiana.
Free people of color in Spanish New Orleans were often skilled property owners. Common professions for men included carpentry, construction, ironworking, and making furniture, shoes, and clothes. Women worked as seamstresses, laundresses, midwives, tavern keepers, boardinghouse keepers, and retailers, among other jobs. They commonly invested the income from these occupations in property, owning land, homes, and sometimes enslaved people. Property ownership provided free Black people financial security and a way to build multigenerational wealth. When free Black baker Francisca Montreuil died in 1803, her children and grandchildren inherited five enslaved people, a house in New Orleans, two plantations, farm animals, and furniture.
In addition to property ownership, free people of color used the militia and the Catholic Church to strengthen their family ties and social connections to each other. The Spanish enlarged the free Black militia in New Orleans to include more than 450 members by 1801. Militia members defended the colony, assisted in emergencies, and pursued enslaved people who found freedom by running away. Militia membership enabled a group identity and social networks to develop, which were bolstered through business partnerships, marriages, and godparentage.
Marriages and baptisms were the domain of the Catholic Church, an institution in which enslaved and free women of African descent found influence and empowerment in the colonial period, participating as parishioners, having their children baptized, and serving as godmothers. Baptism and marriage rituals reinforced the friendship and kinship ties forged by free people of color among themselves and with white and enslaved people.
Early American Period: 1803–1820
When American officials arrived in New Orleans in 1803, they found a sizeable French-speaking free Black community with rights and customs uncommon in other parts of the United States. Anglo-Americans viewed free people of color with suspicion, especially companies of armed militiamen. They feared the possibility of enslaved and free people of African descent joining together in rebellion, like in the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804).
In 1806 and 1808 white lawmakers passed the first of numerous legal restrictions enacted against free people of color under American rule. These laws made manumissions more difficult; attempted to bar free Black people from moving to Louisiana; ended the free Black militia; limited how much the children of unmarried parents could inherit; and required the description “free man/woman of color” be included in all official documents.
A challenge to American officials’ efforts to limit the free Black population occurred from 1809 to 1810. More than 10,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue relocated to New Orleans from Cuba, doubling the city’s total population. Approximately 3,000 free Black Saint-Dominguans, mostly women and children, tripled the free people of color population. In 1810 New Orleans contained almost 5,000 free people of color, making up close to twenty-nine percent of the city’s total population, a far higher proportion than any other city in the South.
Lawmakers also reconsidered their dissolution of the free Black militia. Following the German Coast insurrection led by enslaved plantation workers in 1811, the militia was reinstated the next year. During the War of 1812, free men of color were called upon to defend New Orleans against the British. Two free Black battalions, which included 353 New Orleanians and 256 Saint-Dominguans, fought for the United States in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.
Pre-Civil War Period: 1820–1862
In the years after the Battle of New Orleans Louisiana experienced tremendous economic growth, underpinned by the expansion of slavery. This rapid development during the first half of the nineteenth century provided free people of color opportunities to increase their assets. Most individuals owned small amounts of property, but some became quite wealthy. In 1861 merchant tailor François Lacroix had a real estate portfolio worth more than $200,000 (over six million dollars in 2022). Andrew Durnford enslaved seventy men, women, and children on a large plantation in Plaquemines Parish valued at $161,000 in 1850 (about five million dollars today).
This period also saw major demographic changes. Large numbers of Anglo-Americans from other states and immigrants from Europe relocated to Louisiana while the domestic slave trade forced the movement of enslaved men, women, and children from the Upper South to Louisiana to labor on a growing number of plantations. These changes negatively impacted free men and women of color. As the number of free people of color in Louisiana continued to grow, reaching its peak in 1840, local and state lawmakers passed additional measures to limit the population and create more racial boundaries.
Faced with increasing discrimination, free people of color began to develop their own institutions in the 1830s and 1840s. In New Orleans French-speaking free people of color created religious organizations, literary societies, mutual aid organizations, and schools. Henriette Delille founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic order of nuns between 1836 and 1852. Free men of color formed mutual aid societies, including the Société des Artisans (1834) and the Société d’Economie (1836). In 1847 a group of men led by François Lacroix founded L’Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigents, a school created in fulfilment of a bequest by Marie Couvent. With their family connections and social networks, these collective institutions further strengthened associations among Francophone free people of color.
The nineteenth century also saw the development of an English-speaking population of free people of color in New Orleans, consisting of formerly enslaved people who arrived through the domestic slave trade as well as free Black migrants. These men and women also created institutions, including Protestant churches and Masonic lodges. They remained mostly separate from the larger French-speaking, Catholic free Black community.
Outside of New Orleans, St. Landry and Natchitoches Parish had the largest numbers of free people of color. Rural free Black populations originated in the Spanish period. The first generations were often the children of formerly enslaved women and white men. Their descendants usually married other free people of color, forming extended family units that owned farms and plantations. The Isle Brevelle community in Natchitoches is one notable example. Founded by the children of Marie Thérèse CoinCoin and Frenchman Claude Pierre Metoyer, Isle Brevelle contained eighty-nine families in 1860. They owned thousands of acres and hundreds of enslaved people. Rural free people of color also built their own spaces of worship and education. Augustin Metoyer, the son of CoinCoin and Metoyer, erected a Catholic church in Isle Brevelle in 1829. Free children of color in St. Landry Parish attended the Grimble Bell School.
In the decade before the Civil War, free Louisianans of color experienced repressive laws, racially motivated violence, and vilification by the media. In the southwestern parishes, white “vigilante committees” shut down the Grimble Bell School and used violence to force free Black residents to leave. In addition to laws that circumscribed their rights, free men and women of African descent in New Orleans faced competition in the labor market from the influx of European immigrants to the city. Some families left Louisiana for better treatment and opportunities in places like Mexico, Haiti, and France.
The Civil War radically changed the social, political, and economic conditions of free people of color in Louisiana. The passage of the 13th Amendment dissolved the categories of “slave” and “free person of color,” but cultural and class differences remained. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, free men of color led the struggle for Black civil rights and racial equality. Following federal occupation of New Orleans in 1862, free men of color successfully pressed to serve in the Union Army, established newspapers to espouse their political views, and fought for the right to vote for all Black men. Their political activism continued after the war. Men like French-speaking Louis Charles Roudanez and English-speaking Oscar J. Dunn sought to ensure that all Black Louisianans enjoyed their rights as American citizens in what can be considered the first civil rights movement.