Free People of Color Museum [Courtesy of Kimmie Tubré]

New Orleans’ Free People of Color

07:00 February 21, 2024
By: Kimmie Tubré

Honoring the Legacy

The Harlem Renaissance is recognized as one of the more prominent eras of African American wealth, music, literature, art, and politics. Still, it was not the first era of Black excellence. In fact, New Orleans had a period of Black wealth and cultural freedom that occurred more than a century before.

Before the Civil War, New Orleans held the South's largest population of free people of color. The term "free people of color" refers to individuals of African or African-descendant heritage who were not enslaved and enjoyed a certain degree of freedom in societies where slavery was prevalent. These free people of color created thriving communities in areas such as the Tremé and the Marigny, along with several outlying parishes in Louisiana.

In New Orleans, the history of free people of color is particularly significant because of the accomplishments and wealth many of them accumulated and the resilience they established that still exists in Black communities today.

Free People of Color Museum [Courtesy of Kimmie Tubré]

It wasn't unheard of for free people of color to own property, gain the finest education, participate in the arts, own land, and have some say in politics. While there were privileges to being free, freedom wasn't the same as equality. There were many laws that prevented free people of color from obtaining the full rights of the European population.

Prior to the Louisiana Purchase and the Americans taking over, white Europeans, free people of color, and enslaved people often blended together in various locations around the city. The French Quarter and the historic Congo Square are examples of areas where people could come together, sell, trade, and congregate.

While the slave trade in New Orleans was massive, and slavery was still equally as brutal as anywhere else in the South, the approach to race and slavery was unique compared to the British colonies in North America. There were two systems in place, the Code Noir during French colonization, and the later establishment of Coartación during the Spanish colonial period, that allowed enslaved people to earn their freedom in different ways.During the Code Noir period, plaçage was one of the typical ways that women would gain the freedom of themselves and their families. This would happen through creating heirs with wealthy white men, particularly their owners. Coartación was another way to obtain freedom through self-paid manumission. This enabled slaves to make down payments and negotiate a price for their freedom. Many free people would also purchase the freedom of their family members and lovers. It was a common affair for a free person and an enslaved person to have long term relationships that generally created families and, hopefully, freedom.

In some cases, wealthy free people of color would purchase their family members as slaves to protect them from the cruelty of European slavery. While none of these processes were easy, it did cause massive growth in New Orleans' free people of color population.

Free people of color thrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Americans were not pleased with this, nor were they pleased with the diversity and communal nature of New Orleans. Increases in prejudice and oppression began to push some free people of color out of the city, with many leaving the country, yet some stayed and made a heavy impact on the city that we know and love today.

Free People of Color Museum [Courtesy of Kimmie Tubré]

Le Musée de f.p.c.: Free People of Color Museum

Located on a stunning block of Esplanade Avenue in the Upper Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans is Le Musée de f.p.c., also known as the Free People of Color Museum. It was founded in 2008 by Dr. Dwight McKenna, a surgeon who grew up in the area, and his wife Beverly McKenna, publisher of The New Orleans Tribune newspaper. The two are not only advocates of the legacy of the free people of color, but also a part of its history.

Dr. McKenna is a direct descendant of the Metoyer family, known as the famous Cane River Creoles who owned and inhabited the Melrose Plantation as free people of color. Beverly McKenna is also a descendant of free people of color on her mother's side of the family, who left Virginia to settle in the Midwest.

As avid collectors, the couple uses their knowledge and fortune to educate the masses on Black history, culture, and art.

Touring the museum is a magnificent experience in itself. The tour is given in a story telling format, guiding you through as you learn about the history, triumphs, and struggle of the free people of color at various moments throughout history.

The museum is also a reminder of the resilience of the free people of color and enslaved citizens. It's a sharing of art, portraits, freedom documents, published books, petitions, and so many more items that would possibly never see the light of day without the creation of Le Musée de f.p.c.

Most importantly, Le Musée de f.p.c. is a place for everyone of all ethnic backgrounds and ages to educate themselves on a history that is not only a part of Black history but a major part of American history.

Free People of Color Museum [Courtesy of by Kimmie Tubré]

Free People of Color Who Influenced New Orleans

There are many free people of color who had an impact prior to the Civil War and even today. Here are some key figures:

Dr. Louis-Charles Roudanez: Physician, civil rights activist, and publisher of both L'Union and La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans.

Marie Bernard Couvent: Philanthropist who provided a space for the education of free children of color and orphans of color.

Jean Saint Malo: Leader of the Maroons—a group of runaway slaves who escaped to the marshland near St. Bernard Parish.

Rose Nicaud: Purchased her freedom and began the tradition of coffee culture in New Orleans. Most famous for her cafe au lait.

Henriette Díaz DeLille: Founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1836 and served as their first Mother Superior. Saint Mary's School opened in 1867 under the Sisters of the Holy Family, five years after her death.

Venerable Henriette Díaz DeLille [Courtesy of Christendom Alumni]

Norbert Rillieux: Inventor, chemist, and engineer.

Edmond Dédé: Composer of Quasimodo Symphony, Le Palmier Overture, Le Serment de L'Arabe, and Patriotisme.

Armand Lanusse: Poet and editor of Les Cenelles, a collection of poems by fellow Creoles of color in New Orleans and widely considered to be the first African American poetry anthology published in the United States.

Arnold Bertonneau and Jean Baptiste Roudanez: Civil rights activists during the Civil War. Traveled from New Orleans to D.C. during the war to bring a petition for voting rights to Abraham Lincoln.

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