Continuity of Caste: Free People of Color in the Vieux Carré of New Orleans, 1804-1820

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Because of its trademark racial diversity, historians have often presented New Orleans as a place transformed by incorporation into the American South following 1804. Assertions that a comparatively relaxed, racially ambiguous Spanish slaveholding regime was converted into a two-caste system of dedicated racial segregation by the advent of American assumption have been posited by scholars like Frank Tannenbaum, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, and a host of others. Citing dependence on patronage, concubinage, and the decline in slave manumissions during the antebellum period, such studies have employed descriptions of the city’s prominent free people of color to suggest that the daily lives ... continued below

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Foreman, Nicholas May 2012.

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  • Foreman, Nicholas

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Because of its trademark racial diversity, historians have often presented New Orleans as a place transformed by incorporation into the American South following 1804. Assertions that a comparatively relaxed, racially ambiguous Spanish slaveholding regime was converted into a two-caste system of dedicated racial segregation by the advent of American assumption have been posited by scholars like Frank Tannenbaum, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, and a host of others. Citing dependence on patronage, concubinage, and the decline in slave manumissions during the antebellum period, such studies have employed descriptions of the city’s prominent free people of color to suggest that the daily lives of non-whites in New Orleans experienced uniform restriction following 1804, and that the Crescent City’s transformation from Atlantic society with slaves to rigid slave society forced free people of color out of the heart of the city, known as the Vieux Carré, and into “black neighborhoods” on the margins of town. Despite the popularity of such generalized themes in the historiography, however, the extant sources housed in New Orleans’s valuable archival repositories can be used to support a vastly divergent narrative. By focusing on individual free people of color, or libres, rather than the non-white community as a whole, this paper seeks to show that free people of color were self determined in both public and private aspects of daily life, irrespective of governmental regime, and that their physical presence and political agency were not entirely eroded by the change in administration. Through evaluation of the geography of free black-owned properties listed in the city’s notarial archives, as well as baptisms, births, deaths, and marriages listed in archdiocese ledgers, I show that the family and community lives of free people of color in New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood appeared alive and well throughout the territorial period.

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  • May 2012

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  • Nov. 6, 2012, 3:03 p.m.

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  • Nov. 16, 2016, 5:45 p.m.

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Foreman, Nicholas. Continuity of Caste: Free People of Color in the Vieux Carré of New Orleans, 1804-1820, thesis, May 2012; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc115079/: accessed May 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .