Free People of Color: New Orleans?s Third Society
Nov 07 2017

Free People of Color: New Orleans's Third Society

By: Phil LaMancusa

It might be important to note, as we reach our 300th birthday, that New Orleans is not what can be considered an old settlement/colony, and that for over 200 years before us, the societies that fashioned our world here were in full swing. This was long before Sieur de Bienville brought the first two slaves (George and Mary) into the French outpost that was in the crescent of the river that the Ojibwa Indians called misi zibi, or Father of Waters.

The period of exploration and land-grabbing was pretty much a white man’s undertaking, and the subjugation of “primitive” peoples (indigenous American, African) for pleasure and profit was part of the modus operandi of the white male explorers and exploiters. It goes without saying, also, that a shortage of European women did not deter the conquering heroes from exercising their sexual impulses with whatever female happened to be on hand; indigenous Americans were harder to handle and soon were either displaced or destroyed.

However, the slave trade was well-established and provided ample opportunity and supply of feminine companionship. As a result, Africans, as time went on, were subjected to a genetic melding with Europeans. These mixed-blooded Africans multiplied in numbers and became a new culture and class of citizenry, and they needed to be reckoned with—for very practical purposes.

Exploring and evidencing was part and parcel for this third race of people to fit into Euro/Afro society, and the complexities of this racial bridge had astounding consequences. From the beginning of our French and Spanish occupation—with the occurrence of manumission and the ability of an enslaved person to purchase his or her freedom—a class of people did arise throughout our colonies and was labeled les gens de couleur libres: free people of color (FPC). As time went on, classes within this class gave rise to definitions and labeling concerning the degree of proportion of blood—black compared with white—that these Creoles of color had running through their veins: mulatto (50 percent African), quadroon (25 percent African), octoroon (1/8 or less).

Not all free people of color were Creole and not all Creoles were free people of color, but over time, there has been some tendency to conflate the two, or use the word to refer to people of mixed race, which many but not all free people of color were” (LSU libraries).

Generation after generation, the system of outright taking concubines and the more formal plaçage arrangement placed women of color into the arms of European men—perpetuating the systems themselves. And, with the rearing and educating of the resulting offspring and subsequent societal mobility as a side effect, not only was eventual freedom a likelihood, but the ensuing possibility of economic security and solidarity from this close-knit society (FPC), as well, was practically guaranteed. Against all odds, the FPC actually thrived and prospered. “On the eve of the Civil War (1861), in New Orleans alone, there were 18,000 FPC owning and paying taxes on $15 million worth of property.” (Le Musée  de f.p.c.) That was literally between 10 and 15 percent of the population working in professional capacities and as artists and artisans, opening businesses, owning land, and in some cases, purchasing slaves for personal use. 

Free People of Color: New Orleans’s Third Society

As a first-generation American and a northerner to boot, the scope and importance that FPC had that influenced not just the United States in general, but New Orleans in particular, is somewhat beyond my ken (and possibly yours). However, I can tell you from what I have read and can understand that if you are going to understand this city to any degree, you need to know how FPC formed the foundation of our world here—the very fabric of our joie de vivre.

That being said, my expounding what I know about the FPC would be like you listening to a child trying to explain what’s inside a book by looking at the cover. But I can tell you how to find out the whole story of the FPC from the people who study and live this historical American phenomenon. They are here in New Orleans and hold the pieces of the puzzle that make up who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.

For sure, you could just go to Professor Google, but that would end up with inaccuracies and confusion, and besides, it would keep you from discovering the real deal. There’s a place where you can physically go and have an immersion that will leave you wiser in spirit and intelligence while opening up your heart and your mind. It’s Le Musée de f.p.c. at 2336 Esplanade Ave., lemuseedefpc.com, open Wednesday through Sunday; call for times and to book a tour at 504-323-5074.

Book a tour? Yes. Situated in a wonderful Greek revival (I call it a) mansion are documents and photographs and art work and a knowledgeable staff that gave me more information in 45 minutes than I could digest in weeks. From the French Quarter, it’s about a 20-minute walk or bus ride or whatever, past stately large homes and shading oak trees where, at one time, many FPC had homes. The neighborhood is called Upper Treme, where also, FYI, was an enclave of Greek, Lebanese, and Syrian peoples. But that’s another story. Heck, there are more stories here than you can shake a stick at.

So, there you have it (or as much as I have room to spill out to you). For those of you who want to know more about this city than red beans and rice on Mondays and where to find a decent Happy Hour, know this: unless you learn about our heritage(s) here, you will never fully understand New Orleans. 

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