Free People of Color
Entry describes background of free people of color, also known as gens de couleur libres, in Louisiana.
During the eighteenth century Louisiana was a colony first of France (1682 to 1762) and then Spain (1763 to 1803). Under Spanish rule enslaved people acquired the right to own property and purchase their freedom under the law of coartación, which allowed enslaved people who acquired or saved enough money to purchase themselves to petition the court for their freedom. Coartación offered enslaved people a stake in society they could use their free time to earn money by selling produce in the markets, acting as nurses and artisans, and hiring themselves out as laborers. The owner was obliged to accept the self-purchase petition if the enslaved person were not deemed disorderly. The purpose of this law, found nowhere else in Anglo– or Franco-America, was to protect the institution of slavery by creating a middle—or buffer—group of free Black people. By the end of the Spanish period, 1,490 African-descended people in New Orleans alone had acquired their freedom by cash payments, a remarkable achievement.
Following the Louisiana Purchase, the growing free Black population was augmented by three thousand French-speaking refugees from Spanish Cuba in 1809, forced out because of hostilities between France and Spain. By 1810, the Louisiana Territory boasted 7,585 free persons of color, most of them living in New Orleans and representing 44 percent of the city’s free population. The territory also contained about 35,000 enslaved and 35,000 white people. During the territorial period (1803-1812), Louisiana ended the right of self purchase and excluded free Black people from participation in the new democratic institutions. The Black Code of 1806 stipulated that only enslaved people aged thirty and older who had demonstrated “honest conduct,” i.e., not run away or committed a criminal act, could be freed. After statehood in 1812, the age limit remained in effect but the law was revised in 1827 when the assembly permitted judges and police juries across the state to decide if younger enslaved people born in Louisiana could be freed. In 1830 a law required manumitted slaves who did not receive exemptions to leave the state within thirty days while owners were forced to post a $1,000 bond to ensure departure. The next year this law was softened, but it was clear that acquiring free status was becoming increasingly difficult. In 1852 the assembly required freed slaves to emigrate to Liberia, rescinding this requirement in 1855 and turning the question of individual manumission over to district court juries. In 1857 the legislature prohibited emancipation altogether.
Not only was it more difficult to obtain free status, but other laws and city and parish ordinances curtailed the activities of free persons of color, restricting their movement from one location to another, requiring them to carry freedom papers, and in New Orleans, obliging them to obtain permission from the mayor to become residents. Nor were they permitted to fraternize with enslaved people. From the outset they could not vote nor hold public office nor serve on juries. During the 1850s, the assembly prohibited free Black people from engaging in certain businesses, including coffee houses and retail liquor outlets and barred them from boat captains.
Despite the legal problems connected with manumission and various restrictions on their movements, free people of color enjoyed many privileges denied to enslaved people. They could petition the courts for redress of grievances, make contracts, serve as witnesses, acquire inheritances, transmit property by will or deed, and file suits against whites. Those who were indicted for crimes were entitled to trials with the same formalities, and by the same tribunal, as whites. They were permitted to purchase and own property without restrictions, despite periodic attempts to deprive them of this right. Their children were not prohibited from attending schools, learning to read and write, and educating other free Black people, as was the case in a number of other southern states. Except in cases concerning possible insurrection, the law forbade enslaved people from testifying against free people of color as well as whites. The state supreme court handed down a number of decisions to protect free persons of color. On occasion, in some parishes, they served on patrol duty, though under the command of white officers. In 1820 the New Orleans city council authorized the formation of a free Black volunteer firefighting company. In addition, ex-slave concubines of white masters were allowed to receive one-tenth of their ex-master’s estate in moveable property; their illegitimate children, if formally acknowledged, were allowed one-fourth. If the women and children were still enslaved, they could be freed if the value of the owner’s estate exceeded the one-tenth and one-fourth respectively. During the colonial and early American years, free Black men served in the militia units. They fought with Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans. Thus, free persons of color in Louisiana secured rights and privileges found nowhere else in the southern slave states.
Between 1820 and 1840, the free Black population in the state grew substantially, from 10,476 to 25,502. Although the population declined to 18,647 by 1860, their numbers were still greater than in any other Lower South state and larger than several states in the Upper South (Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee) and the District of Columbia. Their unique position in the slave states could also be seen in their mixed-racial heritage and the amount of wealth they accumulated. During the French and Spanish periods, a number of white men took African-descended women as their partners. In later years, though interracial marriage was outlawed, mixed racial couples were fairly commonplace, and white men engaged in interracial relationships sometimes bequeathed land and human property to their partners and children. By 1860, the proportion of free people of mixed racial ancestry in the state was the highest of any state in the South, at 81.3 percent, compared with 35 percent on average for free Black people in Upper South states.
As a consequence, free people of color became slave owners and planters, businessmen and businesswomen, artisans, and shop owners. They became carpenters, joiners, shoemakers, tailors, coopers, painters, blacksmiths, plasterers, barbers, grocers, merchants, seamstresses, prostitutes, boardinghouse keepers, and more. Despite their numerical decline in New Orleans and other parishes during the late antebellum era, this group remained by far the wealthiest group of free Black people in the country. Free women of color not only constituted a majority among free people of color in the state but among the 561 female real property owners in this group in the Lower South, three out of four lived in Louisiana and a near majority in New Orleans. By 1860, five of the ten wealthiest free people of color in the South—Bernard Soulié, Francis Ernest Dumas, J. Camps, Francois Edmond Dupuy, and Francois Lacroix—lived in the Crescent City. In Placquemines, Orleans, St. John the Baptist, Iberville, St. Landry, Pointe Coupee, Natchitoches, as well as other parishes, free people of color entered the planter class, owning sugar and cotton plantations as well as enslaved people. In some ways sugar planter Andrew Durnford, who owned St. Rosalie Plantation in Placquemines Parish, was representative of this group. The son of a white father, English-born Thomas Durnford, and a free woman of color named Rosaline Mercier, Andrew secured his wealth through his father’s estate and the protection of his father’s friend and the curator of his estate, merchant John McDonogh. By 1850 Andrew Durnford owned seventy enslaved people. He and other free Black slave owners treated their enslaved labor force in much the same manner as their white neighbors did, buying, selling, and disciplining their human chattel.
The social and cultural life of Creoles of color, as many of these French-speaking free people of color were called, reflected their unique position in the South. They developed mores and customs to protect themselves from the periodic hostility of whites, or the possibility of being mistaken for enslaved people. They formed tightly knit social and family clans, socialized with one another, attended church together, provided education for one another’s children, and arranged for marriage of their children within the group. Whenever possible, they clustered together in the same residential neighborhoods and farming districts. In New Orleans they attended the opera, theater, horse races, cockfights, and circuses. On Grand Opera nights, a portion of the gallery at the Théâtre d’Orléans was occupied by gens de couleur, including several patrons of the theater. In rural settings, they hunted, fished, rode horses, shot at targets, gambled, and traveled to nearby towns for sporting events.
In part, Louisiana’s free people of color profited from the expansion that occurred in Louisiana in the years before the Civil War, but with the huge influx of European immigrants they became an increasingly smaller proportion of the free population. In 1830 they numbered 16,710, among 89,441 whites and 109,588 enslaved people, or 13 percent of the free population. In 1860 they numbered 18,647, among 357,456 whites and 331,726 enslaved people, or 5 percent of the free population. The changes in New Orleans were even more dramatic, as the free Black population in the city declined from about 37 percent in 1830, to 6.7 percent in 1860. As the Civil War approached, many free people of color became fearful as whites launched attacks on their privileged status. Little did they realize, however, that their lives would change even more when emancipation spread across the South.