The Free People of Color In Louisiana and St. Domingue: A Comparative Portrait of Two Three-Caste Slave Societies

The Free People of Color In Louisiana and St. Domingue: A Comparative Portrait of Two Three-Caste Slave Societies

Journal of Social History
Volume 3, Number 4 (1970)
pages 406-430
DOI: 10.1353/jsh/3.4.406

Laura Foner

Recently historians of slavery in the Americas have been engaged in a heated debate over the widely differing racial patterns that emerged in the slave societies of this hemisphere. Despite their often bitter disagreements over the origins of these patterns, most agree that it was the treatment and position of the ex-slave in these societies which distinguished one racial pattern from another.

In Portuguese and Spanish America the racial and social pattern allowed the ex-slave to gain acceptance in free society and even to move from a lower to a higher social level through economic advancement. Such a change in social status was possible even in a system of racial ranking that placed whites on top and blacks on the bottom, because of the absence of a strict color line. Not only did these slave societies have many racial categories between black and white, but also a man’s status in society was not as much defined by membership in one of these racial groups as by his economic success.

In the British and French West Indies the racial lines were more sharply defined, and the same kind of racial mobility did not exist. Yet there the ex-slave could fit into a three-caste pattern which allowed a substantial group of free mixed bloods with many privileges to exist as an intermediate caste between whites and blacks.

Although in all these societies the enslavement of an easily distinguishable racial grouping produced certain racial distinctions between white and colored free men, in the United States these distinctions took on a form unique in the hemisphere. There all Negroes—free and slave—were cut off from the rest of society and confined to a distinctly separate and lower caste. This was accomplished both by increasing restrictions on manumission, which confined the Negro as much as possible to a slave status, and by a whole series of legal and social restrictions which rigidly excluded the free Negro from white society. Almost everywhere in the United States even the smallest amount of Negro blood was enough to make a man a Negro and therefore a member of a subordinate caste.

Unsuspecting travelers in the antebellum South were therefore startled to find that the deep South state of Louisiana had a large and privileged free colored community, not unlike the free colored communities of many West Indian islands. Louisiana’s free colored community was not only the biggest in the deep South. but its members had a social, economic, and legal position far superior to that of free Negroes in most other areas of the South, even whose in which the free Negro population was substantial. Travelers were struck by the unusual degree of wealth, education, and social standing of the Louisiana free Negro. They noted “Negroes in purple and fine linen,” “pretty and accomplished young women,” and ‘”opulent, intelligent colored planters.” It was not only this elegant elite which distinguished the free colored population, as only a minority belonged to it, for although they did not live in luxury the typical members of the free colored community nevertheless generally found employment at some skilled occupation. In 1860 only one tenth of the free colored population of New Orleans were classified as common laborers” In fact the free Negroes had a near monopoly of certain trades, including those of mechanic, carpenter, shoemaker, barber, and tailor…

…In 1850 the mulattoes and others of mixed blood formed about eighty percent of Louisiana’s total free Negro population.” Some of them came from stable families which had been free for generations,” But almost all had their origins in some extramarital union (by this time perhaps quite far removed) between a white man and a black woman. The beginnings of this long-established practice dated back to the early eighteenth century when Louisiana was first being settled by the French. The small group of early settlers consisted mostly of those “in the pay of … the King” and especially garrison soldiers. Among the hardships faced by these men in their pioneering work of founding a colony was a scarcity of women. They solved the problem, according to the French Governor Bienville, by running “in the woods after Indian girls.”…

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