Art & Identity in New Orleans

HNRS 109 Spring '18

Free Women of Color: To Exist Between Worlds

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Throughout modern history, Gens de Couleur Libres, or the Free People of Color, of New Orleans have captured the attention of both historical scholars and New Orleanian culture enthusiasts alike. Their precarious position within the complex racial and economic hierarchy of New Orleans continues to be a topic of great interest as it defies the expected social norms of the time. Free people of color in New Orleans, particularly those with a large amount of European ancestry, occupied a distinct space between privilege and extreme oppression that entailed adherence to a unique set of explicit laws and unwritten social constraints. Members of this tight-knit community, most often descendants of enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans, neither experienced the immunity of whiteness nor the complete subjugation of chattel slavery. Existing within this murky space necessitated that free people of color, especially women, learn to navigate the pitfalls of existing as a marginalized citizen with caution and great intelligence. In my research, I sought to explore the ways in which the women of this culture operated within this incredibly nuanced society during the 1700s and 1800s as well as the way this multiracial society viewed them as an independent group.

A city founded almost in tandem with the introduction of slavery to the United States, Antebellum New Orleans was also a city constantly in flux. The transition from French, to Spanish and, finally, American governance dictated New Orleanian culture and treatment of minorities. The more fluid French and Spanish view of race allowed for mixed raced Creoles to form their own distinct racial group and identity that carried with it, its own labels, customs, cultural markings, and traditions. In 1840 free people of color numbered 19,226 of New Orleans’s total population of 102,193 or 18.8% of the total population. They were not a small, hidden pocket of the city but an integral part of the community and economic structure. Free people of color were a part of the middle strata of a three-tier society that ranged from free whites, who experienced total autonomy, to enslaved blacks, who experienced none.  Creoles of color were permitted to work and educate themselves alongside the white citizens of New Orleans and often amassed wealth that allowed them to live at a similar level to whites of the same economic class. For the women of this group, it meant being subjected to a perplexing assortment of laws and social norms that seemed to only apply to them. While the white women of New Orleans still operated under the patriarchal rule of the time, free women of color lived under the same restraints with the unfortunate addition of racism, colorism, and the intricate trappings of being between social classes. They were limited by both their gender and their race in ways that made it difficult to establish themselves through the traditional avenues. Kimberly S. Hanger, the author of Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803 writes,

Libre women had to tread carefully and artfully within a patriarchal society that valued males more than females but did not afford them paternal protection due to the weaker sex because they ostensibly did not possess honor and virtue —- attributes accorded only to whites. (Hanger, 1997)

Free women of color in Antebellum New Orleans had to somehow balance their seemingly advantageous position within the spectrum of blackness while still remaining marginalized due to what ethnic ancestry they did possess. This makes their plight unique from any other segment of the population at the time. Free women of color were held to similar gender standards of their white counterparts but suffered to a greater degree because they lacked the privilege necessary to truly occupy the role. Although the Creole woman was cherished within her community, she often became a target for others as soon as she stepped outside. The livelihood of the Creole woman often solely depended on the previous success of her lineage or the patronage of a male protector.

The Free People of Color of New Orleans were known to put a strong emphasis on maintaining a documented family lineage, advanced education, and strict propriety. Creole women, when possible, were educated as ladies and were expected to behave as such. They were expected to be virtuous and chaste until marriage and motherhood allowed to be matronly and retiring. The level of wealth and white ancestry the family she descended from possessed dictated how genteel a free woman of color was permitted to be. While the elite women of this group often never worked, lower class Creole women were employed as hairdressers, seamstresses, and dressmakers due to their reputation for stylish adornments. These employments, though often underpaid, were usually only allotted to those with at least one-half European ancestry. Free black women who had no European blood were relegated to more taxing jobs such as wash women and scullery maids. Less fortunate Creole women also were known to make their living as sex workers in the seedier parts of New Orleans.

The aforementioned gender roles that Creole women were expected to adhere to were also greatly influenced by their fabled beauty and, subsequent hypersexualization, by the ruling class of white males. It is well documented through recovered accounts and art of the time that free women of color were extremely fetishized for their unusual mix of features and ethnicities. The white men of New Orleans, and northerners who managed to attend social events within the city imprinted their notions of innate sensuality and exotic lands on their features. These women were able to be seen as objects of a twisted sort of adoration because they retained some of the humanity of whiteness while being influenced by the perceived untamed sexuality of blackness. Writers of the time describe creole women as being “child-like,” in their whims and extreme in their need for carnal satisfaction. These women were seen as a commodity to be used at will by white men who used their societal privilege to create opportunities to have relationships, both consensual and nonconsensual, with them. These relationships not only increased the number of free people of color due to inevitable procreation but also created a host of interesting consequences.

As free women of color became more desired, white women began to fear what the emergence of the Creole woman into her social circle would mean for her own status, marriage prospects and well-being. It has been said by many scholars that it became a norm for a white man of note to have a Creole mistress that he treated with more deference and devotion than his legal, white wife. This anger prompted several laws to be created that forced these women to reaffirm their ties to blackness, and perhaps more importantly, slavery. The most well-known of these laws are the Tignon Laws which were a compilation of sumptuary laws put in place in 1786 under Spanish colonial rule by Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró. Creole women were ordered to cover their hair in scarves and dress in plain clothing when out in the French Quarter or at a marketplace where a variety of races would be present. Free women of color managed to subvert these laws by decorating the sanctioned scarfs with lush jewels, feathers, and beading. They also often opted for sumptuous silk fabrics instead of the mandated cotton cloth worn by enslaved women. These acts of defiance not only acted as a silent protest against the policing of their femininity but as a courageous act of identification that could incite far worse punishment than a fine or reprimand. It has been reported that a Creole woman who dared to dress too extravagantly or attract the lust of a white male in public could be ordered to a public whipping by his wife for tempting the man against his better judgment.

Though a notable amount of effort was put into preventing free people of color from merging with white society, miscegenation and socially recognized partnerships between the groups was a unique hallmark of the time. Race mixing in Antebellum New Orleans was not only caused by the unique layout of land and beauty of  Creole women but also, by the severe imbalance of gender represented in the population. Free women of color outnumbered free men of color by almost half and there was a distinct lack of white women as well. These population abnormalities were due to both war causalities and the diseases that ravaged the city.  These factors all created the climate that would condone relationships that were so taboo during this time period in other places in the United States.

The common-law, and often extramarital, relationships between free women of color and white men were often referred to as Plaçage. The Creole women who participated in them were known as Placées.  Placage arrangements were also called marriages de la main gauche or “left-handed marriages.” Though legal marriages between blacks and whites were illegal, there was often documentation of these relationships to show the validity of them. These relationships entailed a white man of advantageous background taking interest in a Creole woman and formally courting her in order to encourage a romantic relationship. This courtship often involved the courter buying lavish gifts for his intended lover and making arrangements with her family that insured her well-being should the relationship dissolve. The length of these relationships varied from months to decades. Many white men took a Placée while already legally married or simply did not marry once in a common-law marriage with a Creole woman. The white men acted as the protectors of these women and often were their only source of survival once out of the family home.

Placées of wealthier white men enjoyed luxuries and refinement that situated them at the top of their social class and allotted them social and economic power that would otherwise be unavailable to her. Children of these relationships were usually recognized by the father and given land, a sizeable allowance and access to education, whether it be in the city or overseas in Paris where the racial limitations would be lessened. By leveraging these relationships to secure their position in the social structure of New Orleans, free women of color could ensure their own survival and that of the future generations of her family. On this subject, Jacques Detiege, a New Orleans native and historian writes,

“…the Negro mother through miscegenation was able to obtain educational advantages and economic security for her colored sons and daughters in an oppressed, hostile environment where most of the members of her race were held in bondage.
That she survived is remarkable; that she prevailed is laudatory. (Deitege, 2008)

Towards the end of the Antebellum period, as Free people of color continued to ascend the New Orleans social ladder and achieve economic success it became more necessary for them to formally separate themselves from the enslaved and free “Negros,” of the city. As American rule took hold, harsher racial definitions and guidelines began to make it harder for them to operate with the same amount of freedom. Throughout this period, most Creoles of color preferred to identify as a racial group of their own. They knew they could not claim whiteness fully, but they also needed it to be evident they were not the same as those below them in the social hierarchy. Group markers such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features became more contentious as looking more black, as opposed to white or racially ambiguous,  began to mean living as a black person in a society that began to conform to the, “one drop rule.” Free women of color who were of lighter complexion, often had better access to education and marriage partners while their darker counterparts often married those of their same social status or lower out of necessity. The ability to pass into white society became highly sought after as the socioracial stratification of New Orleans began to become an unstable ground for a racial group with nebulous boundaries.

The Free women of color of New Orleans during the Antellebum period are an often overlooked minority, usually diminished to historical anecdotes and tawdry stories. They were marginalized due to their race and gender and fetishized for the combination of both. They belonged to a group that struggled to assert their identity and forge a place for themselves in a society that would often rather see them enslaved as their ancestors had been. In studying these women, I found that, frequently, it was only their shrewdness and willingness to turn unfortunate situations into opportunities that allowed their families to survive the oppression they faced on a daily basis.  The endurance of Free women of color in Antebellum New Orleans stands as a testament to not only the level of their social prowess but to the remarkable survival of marginalized populations in the United States as a whole.

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Hobratsch, B.M. (2006). CREOLE ANGEL: THE SELF-IDENTITY OF THE FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR OF ANTEBELLUM NEW ORLEANS (Bachelors Thesis). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.819.7153&rep=rep1&type=pdf

 

Kein, S. (2000). Creole: The history and legacy of Louisiana’s free people of color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

 

Times-Picayune, T. (2011, August 21). 1855: Free people of color flourished in antebellum. New Orleans. Retrieved from http://www.nola.com/175years/index.ssf/2011/08/1855_free_people_of_color_flou.html

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