New Orleans is unique among American cities for its complicated colonial and racial history. The city was French and then Spanish before Louisiana became an American territory in 1803. A large population of free people of color, gens de couleur libres, lived amid enslaved people of color. Some of these gens were quite well off; a few owned slaves themselves. There was, as geographer Amy R. Sumpter writes, a “tripartite racial structure and racial fluidity” that narrowed and tightened with statehood (1812) and absorption of American definitions of race.
From the beginning, French and Spanish colonial conceptions of racial categories were much looser than those in the English colonies. The first slave ship arrived in Louisiana in 1719. The French, who controlled the colony from 1682-1763, had a Code Noir that governed relations between Africans and Europeans and regulated emancipation. The distinction between free and unfree people of color was written into this law, with the free people of color legally equivalent to whites. Slaves, meanwhile, could gain freedom in numerous ways—for instance, by defending the colony or teaching a master’s children.
The Spanish, who ruled from 1763-1800, largely continued French policies. Spanish officials expanded opportunities for emancipation and accepted mixed race relationships. All this helped generate a growing population of free people of color—by 1830, they made up nearly a quarter of New Orleans’ population. (Within a decade, that dropped to less than a fifth as the immigrant white population came in.) Sumpter notes that the Spanish did distinguish between light and dark skinned people of color; Creoles, those born in New Orleans, were also of a higher caste than those born in Africa.
Under the French and Spanish, people with combined African and European ancestry enjoyed many of the privileges white people did. These mixed-race Creole of New Orleans were “famous for their wealth, culture, and education until after 1830” when the American concept of race began to reign. Many worked in professions including “carpentry, cigar making, masonry, shipping, embalming, hairdressing, nursing, and midwifery.”
Sumpter is particularly interested in mapping the distribution of the institution of plaçage, “a legally sanctioned ‘mistress’ relationship between a white man and a free woman of color.” This formal legal category, originated by the French and carried on by the Spanish, “resembled a legalized marriage in practice.” (There is some debate whether the men involved were also married in the more traditional sense.) Needless to say, there was nothing like this in the Protestant-dominated states and territories of the United States. In plaçage, men were encouraged to provide homes for the women of these “left-handed marriages” and to care for the resulting children. Offspring of such relationships could inherit their father’s wealth.
By 1840, 58% of the New Orleans population was white. The effort to contain, segregate, and disempower free people of color stemmed from numerous impulses. There was competition for jobs; the fear of slave insurrections modeled by Haiti; different language, mores, religion; the white immigrants’ unfamiliarity with non-enslaved people of color inhabiting a middle and even upper class; immigrant’s insecurity about being “white” (many were Irish, a group of northern Europeans initially left out of the white category).
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Sumpter lists the legislation used to restrict people of color and enforce segregation through the antebellum era. These included the 1806 territorial prohibition of showing disrespect for whites; the state’s 1830 order for all free persons of color who arrived after 1825 to leave the state; an 1835 city law mandating that separate cars be used on railroads for transporting corpses of differently colored bodies; the 1840 banning of whites from the balls hosted by free people of color; the 1852 emancipation law that required owners who emancipated slaves to ship them to Liberia; the 1857 law that banned emancipation altogether; and the 1859 law that prohibited free people of color from owning businesses that sold alcohol.
Americanization meant a strictly polarized division of black and white. By 1850, the free population of color, beset by the hostility of white supremacy, was economically diminished and residentially segregated. The Americanization of Louisiana, and in particular New Orleans, was completed before the state became the sixth to secede from the Union in 1861 in the struggle over the perpetuation of slavery.